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County officials, Chamber President join Mayor for fifth town hall

Posted on July 24, 2019

Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part story covering the forum. The second part will run in Thursday's edition of the News-Times.

By Caitlan Butler
Staff Writer

Caitlan Butler / News-Times

Meeting: Seated from left: El Dorado-Union County Chamber of Commerce President Bill Luther,

Union County Sheriff Rick Roberts and Union County Judge Mike Loftin along with El Dorado Mayor

Veronica Smith-Creer speak to the public during a town hall meeting.

El Dorado Mayor Veronica Smith-Creer held the fifth in a series of town halls Tuesday night, this time bringing county officials together to talk about their responsibilities in El Dorado and Union County.

“I am the mayor of just the City of El Dorado. My jurisdiction does not go out into the county,” Smith-Creer said. “I am pretty much, for lack of a better word, kind of the face of the city. … But when it comes to businesses, or anything that happens outside of the City of El Dorado, or specifically, the jail, that is out of my scope of work, so that was one of the reasons I thought it would be very good for us to come together.”

Union County Judge Mike Loftin, Sheriff Ricky Roberts and El Dorado-Union County Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Bill Luther joined Smith-Creer at the Chamber of Commerce, where about 20 residents gathered to listen.

The three county officials first explained their various responsibilities before opening the floor for questions.

Smith-Creer originally organized the town hall series in order to give El Dorado, and now Union County, residents the opportunity to face-time with their representatives while also learning about who is responsible for the various services provided by the city and county. Since March, town halls have been held with El Dorado City Council members in each of their respective wards with the same objective.

This time, Smith-Creer brought county officials in to talk about where the line between the city and county is drawn in terms of responsibilities to residents and areas represented.

What they do

Loftin said that in his role as county judge, he acts essentially as the chief executive officer of Union County.

“As County Judge, I guess the easiest way to sum up my position is CEO of the county,” he said.

Union County has an annual budget of about $22 million, he said, which he, along with the Union County Quorum Court, divvies up between the various county offices. Loftin presides over the Quorum Court, the legislative body of Union County, which meets once a month in meetings similar to those held by the El Dorado City Council.

His other primary responsibility is maintaining the roads and bridges throughout the county.

“That’s a major part of it. It takes up most of my day every day,” he said.

He said he also works with Luther, Smith-Creer and other community leaders on economic development considerations.

Loftin noted that he does not have control over other county officials; each acts independently while he executes legislation passed by the Quorum Court and administrates the county budget, along with the other duties he mentioned. Smith-Creer also pointed out that Loftin is not a judicial official; he does not preside over a court of law.

“I do not have control over any other elected official or the employees in their offices. I get caught in the middle of that quite often,” Loftin said to laughs. “But there’s nothing I can do about that.”

Roberts spoke next, detailing his responsibilities as a law enforcement officer, administrator of the county jail and an elected official. Roberts is in the first year of a four-year term he was elected to serve for last year in an uncontested race. Prior to becoming Union County Sheriff, he was the El Dorado police chief for 13 years.

“I kind of knew a little bit of the in’s and out’s before I ran for Sheriff,” he said. “We’re the chief law enforcement agency of this county. We assist El Dorado; we don’t actually patrol the city. … Our main purpose is the rural county.”

Roberts oversees all the deputies at the UCSO, 30 not counting himself, and also administrates the Union County jail. The jail, which has a capacity of 213 inmates, typically holds between 190-200 people; on Monday morning, 203 people were incarcerated there.

The jail comes with its own set of responsibilities and problems, he said. Many residents call for inmate labor on public projects, like cleaning up litter or other unskilled projects; however, Roberts isn’t able to provide that due to the caliber of inmates housed at the jail.

“We talk about getting out, picking up trash; we talk about using inmate labor … but right now we don’t have that option,” he said. “We may have three or four that are misdemeanor arrests in our jail, and the rest are felonies. And it seems like the longer we go, the more violent the felony is, the more violent the individual coming in our jail is. So we can’t just go out and put these people, put these inmates, into your community without guards because they’re a flight risk.”

He emphasized the need for mental health treatment for jail inmates, giving the example of one inmate who recently attempted suicide at the jail.

“Luckily, we got to him before his demise and we ended up taking him to the ER and we ended up getting that young man out of here, because the task on our facility is – we were going to have to do a lot of changing and there’s a lot that goes into it when you have someone who is suicidal,” Roberts said. “We’re trying to get him some help, some mental health help … A lot of people think, ‘well he broke into my house, he broke into my car; put him in jail and throw away the keys.’ Well no — we’re responsible for his well-being, his safety, his medical conditions. We have a lot that we have to deal with every day.”

Alongside those suffering from mental health disorders, and sometimes among them as well, are inmates suspected of violent criminal acts, including homicide. Those inmates must be segregated from the general population of the jail for their own protection, he said.

Roberts is pushing for increased services at the jail to help inmates improve their lives upon leaving incarceration. He is currently working to institute a four-week GED course to be made available to inmates, as well as classes on overcoming substance abuse and abusive relationships.

“We want to open it up so that when these individuals leave our jail, at least they will be better, maybe a little bit more prepared,” he said. “But we’ve got to break that cycle. If they come to jail, they’re on drugs, if they get out and they go back to the same friends and same atmosphere, then they’re going to fall right back into that same routine.”

On the law enforcement side, in addition to investigating crimes and stopping them when they see them, Roberts and his deputies are also responsible for enforcing legal evictions and serving warrants.

Roberts said he feels his main duty is to make El Dorado and Union County better.

“We’re going to try our best. We do think outside of the box a lot of times to hopefully make this place better,” he said. “Each one of us in this room has made El Dorado our choice to live, and each one of us is tasked with making this place better, and that’s what I try to do every day.”

Luther, the only non-elected official, spoke last, explaining his role in driving economic development in El Dorado and Union County. The Chamber helps to promote local businesses through their membership program, which highlights different businesses each week and offers marketing opportunities.

The Chamber of Commerce is also typically the first place new businesses considering locating in this area stop, so Luther spends much of his time devising ways businesses can be attracted.

Currently, the Chamber is working alongside the Arkansas Economic Development Commission to develop “shovel-ready” sites for new businesses to locate at. One project has already come to fruition: in late June, Standard Lithium broke ground on their new lithium extraction pilot plant, where an experimental method of extracting lithium from tail brine produced by LANXESS’ bromine production operations is taking place.

“Typically, how a project flows is the AEDC will notify us of a project. We then have to sign nondisclosure agreements, and then, once that agreement is signed, they will bring … whoever else needs to be brought in on the project, in on the client’s requirements for land, transportation and utility,” he said. “We then go out, with a lot of help from the County Judge, and find a site that meets those requirements of the client. And then if the project continues on and the AEDC fully vets the client, they will then begin to develop.”

The Chamber also works to help make business leaders into community leaders through their Leadership Union County (U-Lead) program. Each year, the U-Lead program gathers businessmen and women from across Union County to learn the ins and outs of the community and how they can help to strengthen it.

“We focus on identifying and developing future leaders of our communities,” Luther said. “Class members build close relationships as they learn about issues that affect our community, including economic development, government, education, health care, crime and the quality of life.”

After introducing themselves and explaining their various job duties, the county officials and Smith-Creer opened the floor to questions.