Riff Raff: No public, no problem

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 887 views 

The who-drew-the-map? game a few folks have played with Sebastian County Quorum Court redistricting is disturbing, disappointing and would be comically clumsy if transparency weren’t such an important part of the election process.

It’s likely a quorum court in any of Arkansas’ 75 counties doesn’t garner much media coverage considering the near collapse of quality community journalism. And we at Talk Business & Politics don’t give the county’s legislative body – and that’s what a quorum court is – the coverage we should.

To be sure, the quorum court in all counties plays an important role in some or several parts your life. A quorum court’s responsibility includes the funding, operations and oversight of courts, law enforcement, parks, roads, emergency services, assessment of property, collection and distribution of taxes, and administration of elections. Such responsibility is why we think it important that how eligible voters elect members to the court should be as public/transparent as possible.

We didn’t want to believe the rumors that redrawing the quorum court districts – something required after the 2020 Census – was surreptitiously done outside the process prescribed by state law. The law notes: “The county board of election commissioners in each county shall be responsible for the apportionment of the county into quorum court districts.” The map, we were told by several sources, was crafted by a political partisan in a way that benefited a certain party, crafted without input from all members of the commission, and shared with a few members of the quorum court before being seen by the commission.

We didn’t want to believe the rumors.

But comments by Sebastian County Election Commission Chairman David Damron at a Nov. 9 meeting, and the inability and/or unwillingness of parties involved to comment on where the map was made and who made it gave the rumors credence.

At a Nov. 9 Sebastian County Election Commission meeting, Damron presented a map he initially said he created. When questioned later in the meeting by Commissioner Lee Webb, Damron said he didn’t make it. (Damron declined to respond to multiple attempts by Talk Business & Politics to ask about the map.) It was then suggested that folks with Western Arkansas Planning and Development District made the map, but they were quick to note they printed the map but didn’t create it. Sebastian County Election Coordinator Meghan Hassler wouldn’t, or maybe couldn’t, tell us about the map’s genesis. Sebastian County Deputy Clerk Nesa Bishop, who is the wife of Sebastian County Republican Party Chairman Larry Bishop, said she “can’t address it (where the map was crafted) unless all parties involved are together.”

Bishop’s statement is not the most puzzling. When asked by Webb, who after the 2010 Census held a public meeting to draft a map, about having a public meeting to draft a map, Damron retorted, “But I have a map that has been drafted that I am comfortable with. … I am not comfortable having a public meeting to draw a map.”

The actions of Damron and others involved in a process that mocks what state law mandates are, as noted earlier, disturbing and disappointing. But what is sad and funny at the same time is that the charade was unnecessary. Damron and his Republican colleague on the commission, Cara Gean, have the majority vote on the three-person commission. They could have met in public and drawn up the same map not made in public and voted to make it official. Heck, they could have crafted a map that looked like a Jackson Pollock piece and voted it in over the objection of Webb.

Again, the subterfuge, the avoidance of questions, the unwillingness to do the public’s business in public, were all unnecessary. It’s another sad chapter in a story about folks at all political levels doing and saying questionable things in an effort to protect a political party over doing right by this constitutional republic.

But Damron and others will get away with it because they can. Because the Secretary of State and Attorney General and Governor aren’t likely to spend any political capital to ask a county election commission to do the right thing. Because Republicans and Democrats in the Arkansas Legislature have for decades benefited from vague county redistricting law. Because a majority of voters in Sebastian County will likely pat the county election commissioners on the back for sticking it good and hard to the other party.

So, here we are, public possessors of an election map without a known creator because for Damron and others the heat of public sunshine is not welcome. In my 25 years in this journalism business, I’ve learned that when folks with public responsibilities aren’t comfortable doing those in public, it’s rarely for a legitimate reason.