Prosecuting attorney criticizes election panel decision

Prosecuting Attorney S. Kyle Hunter made clear in a letter to the Jefferson County Board of Election Commissioners on Thursday that he strongly disagrees with their decision to pursue an appeal of an April 3 court ruling that Pine Bluff will not have a mayoral election until 2016.

The election commission voted 2-1 Wednesday to appeal the ruling made by retired circuit court judge Ted Capeheart, who presided over a special hearing after Pine Bluff Mayor Debe Hollingsworth filed suit on March 25. In her complaint, Hollingsworth sought an injunction that would halt plans to hold a mayoral election this year. Capeheart ruled in Hollingsworth’s favor.

“This is not an issue that should be appealed by the County Board of Election Commissioners,” Hunter said in an email distributed to Commission Chairman Ted Davis, Commissioner Cynthia Sims and minority party Commissioner Stu Soffer on Thursday afternoon. “The Court has given clear direction to the CBEC that the positions of Pine Bluff Mayor, City Clerk and City Treasurer are not up for re-election in 2014. It is clear from the last two court decisions on this issue that these positions are to remain on the same election cycle they were on prior to Pine Bluff’s population decline under 50,000.”

Former Pine Bluff mayor Carl A. Redus Jr. filed to run for his old office on the final day of the filing period for the May 20 preferential primary, and the election commission voted 2-1 to place the mayor’s race on the primary ballot. Davis was Redus’ top aide during Redus’ eight years as mayor.

Redus and Davis contend that because Pine Bluff’s population fell below 50,000 people in the 2010 U.S. Census, state law requires that a change in the timing of the city’s mayoral elections. Redus used the same argument in a failed 2012 lawsuit that sought to postpone that year’s mayor election and extend his second four-year term by two years. Then-Circuit Judge Jay Moody ruled against Redus and Hollingsworth defeated Redus in the November 2012 general election.

Hunter said in his Thursday email that he felt that public funds should not be spent on furthering the cause of one person.

“It is not the role of the CBEC to challenge the decisions of the Circuit Court but to follow those decisions,” Hunter said. “Jefferson County should not expend money and resources to fund Carl Redus’ cause.”

Hunter said he communicated his position to both Jefferson County Attorney Jackie Harris, who represented the commission in the Hollingsworth lawsuit, and Jefferson County Judge Dutch King.

“This matter should not be appealed by the CBEC and Jefferson County should not pay any more legal fees on this issue,” Hunter said.

In the election commission’s Wednesday evening meeting, Davis laid out the commission’s rationale for pursuing an appeal of the court ruling.

“Neither Judge Moody nor Judge Capeheart addressed the correct election cycle for Pine Bluff in their rulings,” Davis said Wednesday. “Judge Capeheart said nothing about Arkansas state statute 14-43-305 which states when mayoral elections for people in cities of the first class with less than 50,000 residents should occur.”

By state statute, the prosecuting attorney and the county attorney are considered to be legal counsel for the commission.

Hunter recused himself from representing the commission in the Hollingsworth lawsuit because had he issued an opinion that the mayor’s race should not be on the ballot this year.

Harris said earlier Thursday that he will be ready to move forward on an appeal once he has received a signed copy of Capeheart’s ruling.

“Mr. [Charles Sidney] Gibson [Hollingsworth’s attorney] has already prepared a precedent [a legal description serving as an authoritative rule] for me to approve,” Harris said. “I have read it and I have no plans to file an objection to it. Judge Capeheart has five days from receipt of the document to sign it. Once he does we can then proceed with an appeal.”

Harris said that despite assertions by Soffer to the contrary in the Wednesday commission meeting, he remains the attorney for the electoral body.

“My legal and ethical obligation is to continue unless I am told otherwise,” Harris said.

When asked for comment on the commission’s decision to appeal, Hollingsworth said the move surprised her.

“It should be very clear from the last two court decisions that have been rendered that there is not an election this year and that the next mayoral election will be held in 2016,” Hollingsworth said. “I guess I am just quite surprised that they would once again challenge these two decisions.”

Hollingsworth shared Hunter’s concern over further expenditures of taxpayer dollars in the matter.

“If they move forward with this appeal, who is going to pay for it?” Hollingsworth asked. “The county taxpayers? When I filed my legal complaint I personally had to pay for it. The county picked up their part of it.”

Redus did not return a phone call seeking comment.