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Hot Springs heats up 

Citizen suspicion prompts ethics class for city directors.

click to enlarge INTENSE: City Manager Lance Hudnell talks with residents. Bill Hunter is in the green shirt.
  • INTENSE: City Manager Lance Hudnell talks with residents. Bill Hunter is in the green shirt.

Hot Springs, the 10th-largest city in Arkansas, bills itself as a friendly resort community. Yet meetings of the Hot Springs Board of Directors are among the most closely guarded in Arkansas. Everyone attending a city board meeting is required to pass through a metal detector and submit carried items to a search by a guard.

That's a level of caution that is not practiced for board meetings in even the state's biggest cities: Little Rock, Fort Smith, Fayetteville, Springdale and Jonesboro.

The heightened security in Hot Springs, instituted this year, illustrates the state of mistrust that has settled over politics in the spa city. While standing in line before a city board meeting earlier this month, I heard a man waiting to go through the metal detector mutter, “It's a sorry thing when elected officials are this worried about their constituents.”

In the past few years, members of two organizations — the Garland Good Government Group and a consortium of churches called The Watchmen of Garland County — have increasingly voiced complaints at the board meetings about the way business is being conducted in Hot Springs. Not all members of the city board appreciate them.

“It's good to have watchdog groups,” Director Carroll Weatherford said last week during an interview in the city attorney's office, “but not to have mad dog groups.”

The GGGG claims about 130 members, residing in both the county and the city. Bob Driggers, a county resident and a leader of the GGGG, says that several people have told him they support the group but fear retaliation, such as harassing inspections of their businesses, if they join.

Pastor Doug Jones, a leader of the Watchmen, says the group represents a coalition of churches concerned about the “moral, ethical and social” health of the county. His “conservative” estimate was that the Watchmen represent 10 churches in the city and seven in the county, with a combined membership of 4,600.

 

‘If it smells like crap...'

I spoke with members of both groups and found them, if not “mad,” as Weatherford suggested, certainly irate and disgusted. As GGGG member Diane Silverman put it, echoing the day's international news, “Our ship of state has been hijacked and there's nobody to save us from the pirates.”

The pirates, in these critics' view, are developers, investors and real estate dealers who, with crucial help from the city board, are running roughshod over Hot Springs. Most directors are seen as putting the developers' interests ahead of the needs of the city and its taxpayers — including non-residents of the city who are taxed for eating, lodging and shopping in Hot Springs.

But not all members of the city board are blamed equally. Director Peggy Brunner-Maruthur is generally applauded for her stands in opposition to the majority. And Director Cynthia Keheley also gets mostly favorable reviews.

Maruthur and Keheley were the only two members who voted against what has become the board's most controversial action to date: the decision it made in March to fire, in one meeting, the heads and all members of three important city commissions — the Planning Commission, the Historic District Commission, and the Board of Zoning Adjustment — and to begin taking applications to reconstitute the commissions with new appointees.

Mayor Mike Bush, along with directors Elaine Jones, Rick Ramick, Tom Daniel, and Carroll Weatherford, who tend to vote together on most issues, voted for the sweeping action, which set off a howl of objections from already disgruntled critics.

At a subsequent city board meeting, Driggers, speaking on behalf of the GGGG, challenged the city board to tell the public what the fired commissioners had done to warrant being removed. When no board member responded, he answered sharply, “They disagreed with the city directors.”

Another speaker, Bill Hunter, warned the city board that firing the commissioners and replacing them with appointees more to the board's liking was “dangerous for you and not good for the city.” He predicted: “You're setting yourselves up for a lot of serious criticism.”

The fiercest criticism being leveled at the board is focused on Director Weatherford, a trim, graying builder in his early 60s, who has been described as the town's unofficial mayor. One fired commissioner commented: “You have to keep Weatherford happy.”

 He has been on the board for six years. When I requested an interview, he suggested we meet at the city attorney's office as casually as if it were his own. In that meeting, which was not attended by the city attorney, he said he draws a disproportionate share of critics' wrath because, “I'm vocal. I speak my piece at the meetings.”

At one point, as if to illustrate the clarity of his opinions, he said that the GGGG and the church-based group of Watchmen are one and the same. “It's black and white to me,” he said. “They attend each others' meetings. Don't tell me they're not the same group. If it smells like crap, it is crap. You know what I mean?”

 

‘Why would anyone do this?'

Mistrust between the city's board and residents of the city and county was not so evident even a few years ago, if it existed at all. Bob Driggers certainly was not aware of it in 2002, when he retired from his career as an electrical engineer in Texas and moved back to Garland County, where he'd grown up.

He says he found the quiet life he expected, and, like many a retired man, enjoyed meeting friends for coffee in some of the local restaurants. However, it was there, over coffee, he says, that he began to hear tales about the city board that sounded to him, not just like cronyism, but cronyism run amok. He heard the owner of one cafe, a woman in her 70s, recall the days in the mid-20th century when Mayor Leo P. McLaughlin and Judge Verne Ledgerwood ruled Hot Springs as classic bosses.

“Bob,” the woman told Driggers, “when you were growing up, there were two people that ran this town. Now there's five or six.”

Driggers, who had headed a good-government group in Texas, says he had no intention of organizing one in his retirement. It was while driving on downtown's Central Avenue, in the section that has become known as “the bottleneck,” where the street squeezes for a few blocks from four lanes to two, that Driggers became convinced that city officials must have had something more compelling than safety in mind when they approved the constriction.

“If you take one of the most congested areas of the city, and take it from four lanes down to two, you kind of rack your brain and try to figure out why would anyone do this,” he said. “I started making noise about it, and people started calling me and supporting me.”

Driggers presented the city board with a petition signed by 400 people who favored changing the street back to four lanes. But, although Maruthur sided with him, noting that, in emergencies, the constriction posed problems for responding police, fire trucks and ambulances, the board's majority, including Weatherford, voted instead to make the bottleneck permanent.

Weatherford stands by his vote. “There are 33 business owners in that area,” he told me. “They wanted to leave Central as a single lane [in each direction] to slow traffic down. So we approved it. And, by the way, so did the state highway department.”

After that, Driggers said, people began calling him with other complaints about the way Hot Springs was being run. And the calls did not stop. Finally, about three years ago, he called everyone back who'd contacted him, invited them to a meeting, and formed the GGGG, “to promote transparent, ethical and representative government” in Garland County.

Later, ministers at several of the area's conservative churches formed the Watchmen of Garland County. While they say their mission is generally to look after the area's moral, rather than civic, climate, they too have joined in objections to what they regard as the “unethical” conduct of certain board members, Weatherford, in particular.

 

‘Because we didn't have to...'

In May 2007, the city board voted, without citizen input, to issue bonds worth $14 million to build a new city hall. Now organized, the GGGG collected 3,300 certified signatures in two weeks to put the matter to a vote. The following October, when the referendum was held, Hot Springs voted against the bonds.

Weatherford shrugs off the incident. He says the board did not put the question to taxpayers in the first place, “Because we didn't have to.” It was legal, he said, for the board to issue bonds “without going to the taxpayers.”

The GGGG's next successful battle was against construction of a new jail that the city board had wanted to fund with a half-cent sales tax. “But that was a very hollow victory,” Driggers says, “because we need a new jail so bad.”

The GGGG opposed the jail initiative because the sales tax the city board wanted was never to expire. “It was to continue in perpetuity,” Driggers says, “and we didn't think that was right.”

As Driggers and other members of the GGGG became more familiar with the board, they began to regard Weatherford as both more powerful and less distinguished a civic leader than he appeared. They learned, for example, though he is a builder, he has been fined on three occasions for contracting without a license.

Weatherford acknowledges as much, though he offers the excuse that, when he began building more houses than he had been, he did not receive the notice from the state contractors board advising him that one was needed.

He acknowledges that he has gone through bankruptcy twice. Both times, he says, were brought on by divorce. He has been on the losing end of a number of lawsuits brought by dissatisfied customers and by material suppliers who claimed they were not paid.

And, according to city records that he brought to the interview, he was cited four times by police for careless driving, expired tags or not having proof of insurance. Each instance is shown as having been nolle prossed, or not pursued, by the city attorney, Brian Albright.

But Weatherford defends that record too, claiming that there was a reasonable explanation for why the city attorney let him off. For instance, he says, he produced proof he had insurance shortly after being cited. But Driggers and others look at that record and doubt they'd get the same breaks.

The most serious — and least substantiated — charge that has circulated about Weatherford concerns a kidnapping that occurred in June 2004. Hot Springs police, responding to a report that a man had been abducted, stopped a car in which they found three men, and a fourth man who was bloody and bound — hands, knees and feet — with duct tape. Police also found in the car a hatchet that they said “appeared to have been freshly sharpened.”

Hot Springs Chief of Police Gary Ashcraft told reporters that the duct-taped man was believed to have stolen property from some people, and that the men found in the car with him, “apparently decided they were going to kidnap [him] and make him tell where the items were.”

Weatherford calmly dismisses rumors that the kidnappers acted on his orders. “I get mentioned in connection with that,” he said, “because the guy that did it worked for me. And he worked for me after he got out of prison.”

 

‘You've made these

guys untouchable...'

For a while, members of the GGGG and the Watchmen thought that Weatherford could be forced off the city board, after a records search at the courthouse turned up a case in which Brian Albright, the city attorney, had performed private legal work for Weatherford. Unlike in many smaller towns, the position of city attorney in Hot Springs is full-time, and the person who fills it is not supposed to have a private practice.

It appeared to Dr. Blake Robertson, a vice president at Ouachita Technical College and a member of the GGGG, that Weatherford had used his position to secure a special privilege from a city employee — something not allowed under Arkansas law. Robertson filed a complaint against Weatherford with the Arkansas Ethics Commission.

When the ethics commission investigated, Weatherford acknowledged that he had sought Albright's assistance and had not paid him for the work. Consequently, in April 2008, the commission found Weatherford guilty of violating the special-favors law, issued him a public letter of caution, and fined him $150.

With that victory in hand, Robertson and others believed that Weatherford could be removed from office, due to another Arkansas statute which stipulated that punishment for any city officials or employees who have illegally received “water, gas, electric current or other article or service ... without paying for it at the same rate and in the same manner that the general public ... pay.”

 They filed a complaint with Garland County Prosecuting Attorney Steve Oliver, asking him to enforce that law. After months of inaction, Oliver notified the group in March that he would not file criminal charges against Weatherford.

He offered two reasons. First, Oliver said, the statute of limitations on the offense had expired, and, second, that the statute the petitioners quoted concerned utilities. Oliver wrote in his opinion that it “was never intended to prohibit ... municipal officials ... from using their position to obtain free legal services.”

Ken Carney, one of the Watchmen pastors, said he was appalled. “I told Steve Oliver, ‘What you've done here is, you've made these guys untouchable.' The statute said ‘services,' and that's what Weatherford took — free, private services from the city attorney that aren't available to the rest of us.”

To Robertson, Oliver's decision came as a disappointment, but no surprise. “I think what you've got here is a scenario of a few good ol' boys running the system,” Robertson said, “and up until now, there's been no one to go up against them.”

Bob Messerschmidt, a former city director who sat listening to the conversation, shook his head. “It's a heck of a mess,” he said quietly.

Oliver's announcement that he would not prosecute Weatherford came just a few weeks after the board of directors voted to abolish the three city commissions. With it, what had been an undercurrent of civic dissent began to erupt in public — in Internet discussions, letters to the local paper and complaints expressed in person at meetings of the city board.

 

‘Ethics 101...'

When the board set a deadline for applications for new members to fill the revised commissions, then extended the deadline, although several qualified applicants had applied, citizens whose suspicions were already aroused saw in the move an attempt to allow board members more time to recruit applicants who would do their bidding.

At a subsequent board meeting, several people rose to demand that all applicants be required to disclose their business and financial interests, so that citizens could know if and where they might intersect with interests of board members.

By late March, allegations of conflicts of interest had reached such a pitch that Albright, the city attorney, decided to present what he called an “Ethics 101” class for the board of directors. The presentation included information about what constitutes a conflict of interest, the conditions under which a director should recuse from a vote, and a code of ethics form once used by the city of Little Rock.

Afterwards, all the directors except Weatherford described the session as helpful. Weatherford said that, as a result of his experience with the Arkansas Ethics Commission, he was already well versed in what constituted a conflict of interest.

“I can't stop from voting on an issue just because I know somebody,” he told me. “That would be ridiculous. I know a lot of people. But if it involves monetary gain for me, yes, ma'am. I would recuse.”

To the contrary, Weatherford's opponents claim, he has not recused on votes that concerned properties being developed by Rodney D. Myers, whom Weatherford describes as a friend and employer.

Myers pleaded guilty in 2005 to charges of concealing assets, laundering money, and perjury, and was sentenced to 15 months in a federal penitentiary. Loyd “Rick” Ramick, a Hot Springs real estate agent, drove him to prison.

Upon his release, Myers returned to Hot Springs and to the real estate development business. He put together several LLCs — limited liability companies — and began work on a number of relatively high-profile projects. Weatherford worked on most of those projects as his job superintendent. He stiffens when asked about his opponents' charge that he is “in business with an ex-con.”

“If Mr. Myers has been to prison,” Weatherford asks, “does he not deserve a second chance?” Then he adds congenially, “I'm not going to condemn anybody just because he's been to prison.”

 

‘Strictly a go-between'

But the fact that Myers went to prison is not what most disturbs members of the GGGG and Watchmen. They focus more on the lawsuits that have been filed against Myers since he's been out, and on actions by the city board that bring it, as one member observed, “too close to Myers for comfort.”

They cite the board's decision, last year, when a longtime director suddenly died, to appoint in his place Rick Ramick, the real estate agent who'd escorted Myers to prison.

And they note with particular concern, that after that, when Myers was facing difficulties with some financial partners on a subdivision called Away, Ramick moved and the board voted to table a resolution to extend water and wastewater lines to the project.

Ramick never explained why he moved to delay approval of the services, but some in the real estate business believe it was to provide Myers with leverage in dealing with his partners. As one critic put it, Ramick and Weatherford were “holding those services hostage,” until Myers got what he wanted. They note that Weatherford participated in the vote without mentioning that he was Myers's superintendent on the project.

At a subsequent meeting, the issue was put forth again, and the board approved services for the site. All Ramick ever said about the turn-around was that certain unnamed “issues had been resolved.”

Critics also complain that Weatherford attempts to “run interference” for Myers in problems with city agencies. They point to a situation early this year, when the Hot Springs Public Works Department notified Myers that a stalled project of his, known locally as Shady Grove, was in violation of storm water controls.

Weatherford said Myers simply asked him to meet with the city inspector, and later, the department manager, to discuss what needed to be done. “I was never hired on that project,” he says. “I was strictly there as a go-between between the city and Mr. Myers.”

When asked if he saw any conflict in a city director representing a developer who'd been cited by a city agency, Weatherford answered: “No, ma'am. Why would I?”

He continued, “In the first place, I'm going to tell you that none of our city employees would do anything special because of me — and I wouldn't want them to. And in the second place, everything has been way above-board that Mr. Myers has ever done.”

Not everyone agrees with that last assertion, particularly some residents of Garland County who are currently suing Myers. Two of those parties allege that Myers personally guaranteed the charge accounts for building materials on his projects, and that has reportedly prompted officials with the U.S. Probation Office in Fort Smith to investigate whether Myers has violated a condition of his probation that barred him from establishing “any bank or credit accounts” without prior approval from his probation officer.

In a brief telephone interview, Myers said, “I have no concerns.” Asked about the probation issue, he said that his lawyer, Q. Byrum Hurst Jr., was “looking into it.”

Myers also dismissed concerns about his relationship with directors Ramick and Weatherford. “It's Hot Springs politics,” he said breezily. “I think they are taking into account a mistake I made over 10 years ago, and they won't let it go.”

 

‘You've got regulations...'

All of this, however, darkens the shadow cast over the board's unusual decision to “reorganize” the planning and historic preservation commissions and the Board of Zoning Adjustment — entities that play an important role in many development issues.

Weatherford says the board voted to abolish the commissions because it had received so many complaints about the way they were operating, “and it was the consensus that we were going to disband them and start over.”

Furthermore, he said, “Several of us had always wanted the planning commission to be represented by district, and that's what we're going to have now.”

David Campbell, former vice chairman of the Planning and Zoning Commission, said the board did not like being reminded that it could not act with impunity. “We had shown them,” he said, “that, ‘Hey, you've got a set of regulations in the city that you're supposed to go by, and you need to go by your programs.' ”

Campbell cited, as an example, a rezoning request for an area known as Hi-Lo Terrace that he said was “deep in a residential area, where they wanted to rezone to commercial. Planning recommended to the board not to rezone, but then, if I'm not mistaken, our recommendation was overturned by the board.

“That was a project, I believe, that Rodney Myers was involved with. And that appears to me to be a conflict of interest, when you get people who are that involved with each other voting on their projects.”

Again, Weatherford sees no problem. He said, “My impulses favor commercial development, if it doesn't get in the way of residential areas — and that didn't.” He insists, “I've never used my position on the board to help developers.”

With regard to his employment by Myers, he said, “A man's got to be able to make a living. I'd work for the devil himself, as long as he paid me on Friday and the check was good.”

 

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