HELENA-WEST HELENA- With a majority of the City Council clamoring for a vote on their alternative budget, Mayor Arnell Willis refused to call the roll and allow a vote that would have reopened city government.
Willis opened the meeting by saying that the council could not submit a budget. He said, "This is state law. The council members cannot submit no budget."
Alderman Don Etherly, who is a licensed attorney, said, "The statute does not say we have to approve the Mayor's budget."
City Attorney Chalk Mitchell, who at times during the meeting was getting input from former West Helena Alderman Eddie Lee, who is not an attorney, initially backed Willis's interpretation but later admitted that the City Council could vote on any budget.
Willis, for the second night in a row, forced consideration of his budget. With Alderman Eddie Clark absent, Willis's budget was again defeated by a vote of 3-6 with Aldermen Jay Hollowell, Joe St. Columbia, and Eddie Clark.
Willis then followed Hollowell's lead and pushed for an extension of the 2010 budget. Alderman Larry Brown expressed concern about the extension leaving in place spending levels that Willis has previously said needed to be cut. He again called for watching things with monthly appropriations. He said, "We need to watch this closer."
Alderman Don Etherly expressed again tonight his skepticism about Willis's claims that the city is "bankrupt." He said, "If we are bankrupt, then his (Willis's) number aren't right. His budget shows a million dollar surplus."
Willis, filled with angst, said, "If you don't extend the 2010 budget, then we will have a shutdown." Etherly replied, "So, we either pass your budget or you'll shut it down."
Hollowell and Alderman Christopher Franklin, then had a confrontation with Hollowell angrily proclaiming, "I have the floor. You'll learn. Don't interrupt me when I am talking."
St. Columbia, then told Etherly, "If you would follow my leadership, we'll get you out of the ditch."
Willis then said the council could not have a monthly budget repeatedly calling it "illegal." Etherly then pointed out that it is a 12-month budget that appropriates 1/12 of the revenue.
The council has many issues with Willis's budget. Willis has said the city is bankrupt, but shows a $1 million surplus in his projections and has continued to hire people, many of whom worked on his campaign. Willis has hired two department heads with criminal histories. Willis is also requesting a 56% pay increase for himself and a substantial raise for the City Attorney. Aldermen also point out that Willis has apparently not followed procedures for hiring and firing decisions. Many of the employees recently hired have also been brought in at salaries higher than the allowed starting salary.
Willis and Hollowell then asked again to extend the 2010 budget, all while a motion and a second to pass the council's budget was on the floor. Willis then said that the council should follow Hollowell's suggestion that the 2010 budget be extended and budget workshops be held to forge a compromise. Alderman Monica Davis said, "You haven't said anything since our first meeting January 4th. It appears it is your way or the highway. You don't want compromise."
Jarrett said, "Why can't we pass this monthly appropriation and then have these same meetings and workshops."
Willis continued to refuse to follow Robert's Rules of Order despite the council calling for a vote on their budget proposal. He then followed Hollowell's lead and forced a vote on extending the 2010 budget. It also failed 3-6.
Then there was an hour-long standoff on whether or not a vote would be held on the council's budget. Willis, despite pleas from the council and the audience to allow the vote according to the rules and then exercise his proper discretion to veto, imposed his will like a dictator and directed that neither he nor the clerk would call the roll on Jarrett's "illegal" budget.
Jarrett said, "You shut the city down today. You will be shutting it down tomorrow."
Willis later asked Jarrett, "Why can't we work through this."
Jarrett said to Willis, "You can't be trusted. You can't be believed"
Willis, in response to a question from Brown, said he would declare a city emergency and keep the city open. However, many legal experts believe that Willis, by keeping some departments open, may be leaving the city open to some legal difficulties since no money is appropriated.
The council is going to have a workshop to try to work on the budget Monday. The next council meeting is scheduled for February 15. As of now, the city remains shutdown.