Pine Bluff Mayor Debe Hollingsworth said Friday night she will be filing a lawsuit against the Jefferson County Election Commission after the commission voted Friday to place former mayor Carl A. Redus Jr.’s name on the ballot as a mayoral candidate in the May 20 Democratic Party primary.
Redus filed as a mayoral candidate in the Jefferson County Clerk’s Office on Monday, just minutes before the end of the filing period for partisan candidate, despite a recent opinion from the Arkansas Secretary of State’s office that Pine Bluff’s next mayoral election should not be held until 2016.
Redus contends that state law dictates a change in the timing of a mayoral election because Pine Bluff’s population dropped below 50,000 in the 2010 federal census. It’s the same argument Redus used unsuccessfully in a 2012 lawsuit that sought to delay that year’s election — and extend his second four-year term in office — for two years.
Circuit Judge Jay Moody ruled then that a change in a city’s population has no effect on the timing of its mayoral elections.
Before Friday’s meeting, Prosecuting Attorney S. Kyle Hunter advised the election commission in writing that there should be no election until 2016 for Pine Bluff’s mayor, city clerk and city treasurer offices. Hunter is the commission’s legal counsel.
City Clerk Loretta Whitfield, who was re-elected for a four-year term in 2012, filed to seek re-election this year. Retired Arkansas State Police Capt. Lloyd Franklin Sr., filed as a Democrat for city treasurer. The current treasurer, Greg Gustek, was elected to a four-year term in 2012.
Ted Davis, chairman of the election commission, said at Friday’s meeting: “We are going to move forward with all the filings.”
“They went against the order of Judge Moody,” Hollingsworth said after attending the meeting. “I spoke to several attorneys after the meeting and told them what happened and the attorneys said ‘you’ve got to be kidding. That’s the law and you can’t go against the law.’ The question I have is now that they have gone against the opinion of the prosecutor, who is their legal counsel, who is going to represent the commission?”
Hollingsworth noted that Davis served as Redus’ chief of staff for eight years when Redus was mayor and was involved in his election and re-election campaigns.
“Is that not a conflict of interest with him deciding to put a mayor’s race on the ballot?” Hollingsworth said. “The right thing for him to do would have been to recuse himself. This makes no sense whatsoever.”
Stu Soffer, the lone Republican member of the three-person commission, cited Hunter’s written advice in opposing the action.
“I have the same opinion as the court,” Hunter said in his letter, referring to Moody’s 2012 ruling. “The controlling law is (Arkansas statute) 14-37-113 which states that, in the event any city to which a law was applicable at the time of the enactment of the law shall subsequently achieve a lesser or greater population than the classification prescribed by the law, the law shall nevertheless thereafter be equally applicable to any such city, irrespective of the fact that the city no longer has a population within the classification prescribed by the law.
“This means that the law that initially set the time for the Pine Bluff mayoral election still applies, even though the city’s population has deceased below 50,000,” Hunter said.
He said that while laws have been adopted setting out specific provisions changing election cycles for cities whose populations have increased to more than 50,000, those laws don’t apply to Pine Bluff because there is no provision to change the election cycle for a population decrease.
Hollingsworth said that if Davis and Redus are correct in the way they interpret the law, then all eight seats on the the Pine Bluff City Council should be open this year as well.
“The filing period has closed, so what’s going to happen to those people that might have wanted to file as Democrats?” Hollingsworth said. “What are they going to do?”
“This was orchestrated for a particular reason by one person, Carl Redus,” Hollingsworth said. “He’s the only one who says there should be an election. It’s sad for the city of Pine Bluff and for the citizens of Pine Bluff to have to deal with the selfishness of one particular person, and the question is why?”
Soffer raised the issue of the city council positions during the meeting.
Davis noted that there is one alderman race in each of the city’s four wards and said he was satisfied that that would be sufficient.
“So you only want to apply the law when it suits your purposes,” Soffer said.
After the meeting, Redus said he and his “legal team” have been working on the issue and repeated statements also made by Davis that the opinions from Hunter and the Secretary of State’s office “were only opinions.”
He said he expects that Attorney General Dustin McDaniel and Secretary of State Mark Martin will get involved in the issue.
Asked about his connections to Davis, Redus said there is no conflict of interest and that Davis “was following the law concerning elections.”
Former Pine Bluff Alderwoman Janice Roberts, who was initially not allowed to speak because there was no public comment segment set for the meeting, said she was “appalled” by the events, particularly the actions of “one commissioner” whom she did not name.
The meeting was called to conduct ballot drawings for the May partisan primaries but that took a back seat to the bickering between Davis and Soffer, with Davis claiming that Soffer had threatened him physically, had election equipment in his personal possession and had gone to Davis’ job and made threats there.
“You’re a liar,” Soffer said. “I never threatened you.”
Regarding the election equipment, Soffer has said he had several items left over from a job he previously held with a company that sells electronic voting equipment and sent a copy of a receipt to The Commercial showing he had returned the items to the company.
Soffer also told The Commercial he would be filing a formal complaint against Davis with the State Board of Election Commissioners after Davis made decisions on several issues without input from the third member of the commission, Cynthia Sims, who is serving as secretary after Soffer resigned from that position earlier this year.