There will be no mayoral election in Pine Bluff this year, a special judge ruled Thursday.
Retired Circuit Court Judge Ted Capeheart of Ashdown granted Pine Bluff Mayor Debe Hollingsworth’s request for an injunction canceling 2014 municipal elections for the office of mayor, city clerk and city treasurer. Capeheart made his ruling after a two-and-a-half hour hearing in the courtroom of Circuit Judge Jodi Raines Dennis.
Hollingsworth requested the injunction in a lawsuit filed last week against former mayor Carl A. Redus Jr. and the Jefferson County Election Commission, among others. The suit was filed after Redus filed to run for mayor in the May 20 preferential primary and the election commission ruled that the mayor’s race would be included on the ballot.
Redus argued that although Hollingsworth was elected to a four-year term in 2012, state law required that a mayoral election be conducted this year because Pine Bluff’s population has fallen below 50,000 residents. Redus used the same argument in a failed bid to halt the 2012 mayoral election but Circuit Judge Jay Moody of Little Rock ruled then that the timing of city elections would not be affected by the population change.
“The October 5, 2012 ruling by Judge Moody is res judicata [conclusive]; therefore his ruling is binding,” Capeheart said at the close of Thursday’s hearing.
“If anyone had a problem with Judge Moody’s ruling in 2012 they should have appealed, but they did not,” Capeheart said. “I find that the plaintiffs are entitled to the prohibition of municipal elections for Pine Bluff mayor, city clerk and treasurer this year.”
Hollingsworth was happy with the ruling.
“Our attorneys did an awesome job in upholding the law,” Hollingsworth said. “This is a victory not only for me but for the citizens of our city. They know that their vote means something. Now we can get back to the business of working to better the lives of our residents.”
Redus was circumspect in his assessment of the situation.
“The judge has spoken,” Redus said. “It’s disappointing. In terms of what comes next I will have to let my legal counsel suggest what should be done.”
Jefferson County Election Commission Chairman Ted Davis said he did everything he could to follow applicable law.
“I’m rather disappointed in the ruling,” Davis said. “Every action that we took and decision that we made was based on Arkansas legal statutes. That being said, we accept the judge’s ruling.”
When asked about the possibility of an appeal, Davis said that he would need to speak with County Attorney Jackie Harris, who represented the election commission, before coming to any decision regarding further legal action.
Capeheart was appointed by Arkansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Jim Hannah to hear the case after all Jefferson County Circuit judges recused themselves last week.
According to state law, parties have 30 days from the entry of the initial judgment to file a notice of appeal.
Harris made a motion at the beginning of the hearing to dismiss Hollingsworth’s complaint, arguing that it failed to present facts that could lead to the legal relief being sought.
“Arkansas law requires fact pleading and we believe the plaintiff [Hollingsworth] has failed to do so,” Harris said. “We believe that this complaint should be dismissed for failure to state a cause of action.”
Capeheart denied the motion to dismiss.
Charles Sidney Gibson, who along with his son Chuck Gibson represented Hollingsworth, entered into evidence a copy of the Oath of Office signed by Hollingsworth upon being sworn in as Pine Bluff mayor in January 2013.
Gibson said he did so to establish that Pine Bluff mayors have always been elected to four-year terms of office.
Harris brought Davis to the stand to explain how he came to decide that a mayoral election should be held in Pine Bluff in 2014.
“Several things have changed since Judge Moody’s ruling of October 2012,” Davis said. “First, the Pine Bluff City Council passed Resolution 3551 in December 2012 that established municipal primaries. Second, the Arkansas Municipal League weighed in on the subject in January of this year when they published information in that month’s issue of City & Town Magazine stating that cities of the first class with under 50,000 people that have a mayor-council form of government will elect a mayor in mid-term years.”
The magazine in question published a section in its January issue entitled 2014 Municipal Election Information, which listed all relevant electoral information for every type of city government and every class of municipality in Arkansas.
“With regard to Judge Moody’s final ruling we established that it was only referencing the November 2012 election,” Davis said. “In terms of the legal opinion from [Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney S. Kyle] Hunter, we believe that in making his determination that Moody’s ruling still prevailed he did not acknowledge that things had changed since that ruling.”
In his cross-examination of Davis, Gibson had Hunter’s legal opinion to the Election Commission entered into evidence.
“Mr. Davis, would you please read the paragraph I have highlighted from Mr. Hunter’s opinion?” Gibson asked Davis.
“It is my opinion that the offices of the Pine Bluff mayor, city clerk and city treasurer will not be open for election until 2016,” Davis read from the Hunter opinion.
In his closing argument, Gibson said that he believed Hollingsworth’s case was a persuasive one.
“We think our items of proof are dispositive,” Gibson said. “We made proof of a four-year term of office for mayor in her oath of office and established that former Mayor Redus served two four-year terms. All causes of action are appropriate in this case.”
Harris used his closing argument to try to establish that the Arkansas statute relied upon by Hollingsworth to prove her case actually proved the defense’s case instead.
“Statute 14-37-113 actually doesn’t state which election cycle to go with, but instead tells you which statute to go to,” Harris said. “Statute 19-1002-4 was enacted in 1965 for cities with less than 50,000 residents and the 1960 Census found that Pine Bluff had 44,370 residents. Statute 19-1002-4 was codified into 14-43-305, which we argue is controlling in this case.”
Arkansas Code 14-43-305 sets out Arkansas law regarding mayoral elections in cities of less than 50,000 residents with a mayor-council form of government.
Gibson used his rebuttal time to press home the idea that voters in 2012 understood the mayoral office they were deciding upon to be a four year term.