Justice of the Peace Ted Harden will not be attending the National Association of Counties (NACo) conference in March after the Jefferson County Quorum Court turned down his request for funding Tuesday night.
During a wide ranging discussion about the trip before a final vote, County Judge Dutch King said when Harden approached him about making the trip at county expense, King said no and told Harden he would have to get the quorum court to approve the money.
“If you will remember, during those two meetings with all the elected officials last year, I said we need to cut out all out of state travel and if we had to travel in-state, we needed to car pool,” King said. “I would be a hypocrite if I approved this.”
Harden said he had been attending conferences of the national association for a number of years under previous county judges Jack Jones and Mike Holcomb, always at county expense.
Asked by Justice of the Peace Delton Wright how the county benefited from him attending the conferences, Harden said he currently serves on the NACo finance and intergovernmental affairs steering committee where he has taken the floor to speak against various federal regulations he believed were not in the best interest of the people of Arkansas.
He also said the money to attend the national conference was a small part of the annual budget for the quorum court and no supplemental appropriation would be needed. Harden also said the money to pay for his attending the conferences last year came out of the 2012 budget.
However, Daniel Marks, the administrative assistant to King, said there is no line item in the quorum court budget for attending conferences.
“If you’re representing the state of Arkansas, why doesn’t the state pay for you to go?” Justice of the Peace Mandy Alford asked Harden, who said the state organization (Association of Arkansas Counties) pays the membership dues for all 75 counties to be members of the national association, but expects delegates from the counties to pay their own way to the conferences.
Harden also said he had been going to national conferences for “20 years,” to which Justice of the Peace Dr. Conley Byrd responded, “We’re just perpetuating what has always been done.”
“H.O. is gone and there has been nobody appointed to fill that slot,” Byrd said, referring to H.O. Gray, a former justice of the peace and a former delegate to the national conferences from Jefferson County.
Harden was the alternate, but both generally attended the national meetings.
Byrd also said that the county’s legislative body had never discussed who was going to represent the county, either at the state or national level, and never discussed spending money to send them to the conferences.
“I think it is important that we participate at the state level and we would be short sighted if we didn’t have a presence at the national level but I have been here four years and I have never seen a report about what the state did,” Byrd said. “As a body, if we are going to send somebody to the state, we should get a report back.
“Ted, this is not about you and not about this trip,” Byrd said. “It’s about this body.”
Byrd also said that as a legislative body, the quorum court needed to set an example for the other elected officials and cut out travel out of state.
“Just because we’ve done something in the past doesn’t mean we have to do it now,” King said. “We have to make good, solid decisions.”
Harden said he had already spent about $600 for the trip for a plane reservation and registration at the conference, using a Jefferson County credit card, the same procedure he used last year when he went to the national conference.
Asked by Justice of the Peace Dr. Herman Ginger if he had received approval from King to use the county credit card, Harden said “not this year.”
“It was approved last year and because it is a year later, why would I think it would be any different,” Harden said.
After the vote, Ginger asked if the charges for the airline ticket and conference registration could be taken off the credit card bill and received assurances they could.
Later Tuesday evening, Harden contacted The Commercial and said when he went to the national conference last July, he needed an authorization letter designating him as an official delegate and a letter was faxed to King, who signed it and sent it back.
Harden also said when he went to the legislative conference last year, he had to have a letter authorizing him to use the county credit card to pay for his hotel room, and that authorization was also faxed to King, who signed it and sent it back.
“I called nine JPs before I registered for the conference and they all said they wanted me to go,” Harden said. “That didn’t come up tonight during the meeting.”