Saturday, April 30, 2011

Attorney General on Helena's Budget Crisis: "No Comment"

On Friday, April 29, 2011, Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel declined to issue an opinion on the situation in Helena-West Helena. Senator Jack Crumbly had made a request of the Attorney General.

The opinion does not detail when the request was made by Crumbly. The opinion does not list Senator Crumbly's question or questions. Here's the full text of the opinion issued:

Opinion No. 2011-027

April 29, 2011

The Honorable Jack Crumbly
State Senator
1823 SFC 414
Widener, Arkansas 72394-9404

Dear Senator Crumbly:

You have requested my opinion on a number of questions concerning the
City of Helena-West Helena and its budget situation. It has come to my
attention, however, that a lawsuit has been filed on the subject matter
of your request: Pride, et al. v. Willis, et al., CV-2011-42 (Circuit
Court of Phillips County, Arkansas, Civil Division, complaint filed
February 8, 2011).

I have a statutory duty to render my opinion to legislators,
prosecuting attorneys, and other state officials on certain matters of
state law.[1] But my office follows a long-standing policy against
issuing opinions on matters that are the subject of litigation.[2] This
is in recognition of the judiciary's independent constitutional role. It
has long been the policy of the Attorney General, as an office in the
executive branch of government, to refrain from rendering opinions on
matters that are pending before the courts for determination.[3]

I must therefore respectfully decline to issue an opinion in this
instance. Your questions relate directly to the legal issues before the
court. The questions must be resolved in that judicial forum. Any
opinion from my office would amount to executive comment on matters that
are properly before a judicial body.

Deputy Attorney General Elisabeth A. Walker prepared the foregoing
opinion, which I hereby approve.


Attorney General
[1]A.C.A. § 25-16-706 (Repl. 2002).
[2]See, e.g., Op. Att'y Gen. Nos. 2009-089, 2008-183, and 2007-039 (and
opinions cited therein).
[3]See Op. Att'y Gen. 2008-034.

The Inside Scoop, after some digging, was able to locate the questions on the AG"s website. The questions asked were as follows:

Please respond to the following questions regarding the Helena-West Helena budget situation: 

  1. Who in city government can propose a budget for passage by the governing body? 
  2. A) Is the mayor required to do this? 
  3. B) Can it be the city council or a council member? 
  4. C) Can it be a citizen or other elected official? 
  5. Q2) Under A.C.A. 14-58-201 et seq., what is the proper approach to passing a budget? 
  6. Q3) The city council passed a budget on January 31, 2011. The mayor vetoed that budget on February 1st at noon. How long could the city have legally operated under the 2010 budget extension? 
  7. A) Until midnight or beyond? 
  8. Q4) The city council passed another budget on February 3, 2011. On February 4, 2011, the mayor issued a veto. In light of the veto, can the city legally operate any department? 
  9. Q5) Where there is a shutdown of city government because no lawful budget has been adopted, can the mayor operate the police, fire or any department because of the essential functions they serve? 
  10. Q6) Does the mayor have the authority to declare an emergency and operate the city under A.C.A. 14-55-401 without passing a current fiscal year budget? 
  11. Q7) The city has a base pay ordinance that sets the salaries for all new employees and newly elected officials. Is it then contrary to law to pass a budget by resolution which sets the salaries of the city treasurer, city attorney and mayor equal to the amount in the base pay city ordinance? 
  12. Q8) If the city is sued for an illegal exaction because it operated the police, fire, water and landfill departments during the shutdown and operated all departments during the emergency declared by the mayor, what individual or entity is responsible for repayment of monies spent and debts incurred during the period of shutdown? 
Because there is pending litigation against the city on these very same or similar issues, the Arkansas Attorney General's office declined to issue an opinion. This action is consistent with past practices by the AG's Office. The lawsuit which is pending has been reported on this blog several times:

We will check with some lawyers for statements on what this opinion means to the litigation which is pending and to the overall operation of city government in Helena0West Helena. We are certain that there is no other time in the history of our community where a governmental body has operated for nearly 90 days without a budget as required by law.

State law requires that cities pass new budgets for the new budget year (Jan. 1st - Dec. 31st) on or before February 1st of each year. The Helena-West Helena City Council has passed at least four budgets. They passed one on January 31st and three more after that date. Mayor Arnell Willis has stood his ground asserting at least two things in his vetoes: A) The council did not vote on a budget presented by him and they must, according to his interpretation of the law, do this; and B) The budgets strip the mayor of some of his power.

Mayor Arnell Willis closed the city for a day or two and then declared an emergency, reopened the city without a budget and began operating the city under his declared emergency. Mayor Willis continues to operate city government under his so-called emergency. The Inside Scoop has not been able to locate any law permitting a mayor to declare an emergency and operate without a budget.

The Pride Lawsuit was filed to give the mayor the authority to operate on last year's budget until the city council can approve another budget. The lawsuit alleges, however, that the city council had failed to pass a budget as of February 8th when by that date the council had passed three budgets.

No comments:

Post a Comment