Crawford County hit with large legal bill with attorney ‘running to the sirens’

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 4,886 views 

A debate over books has cost Crawford County in recent months more than $65,000 in severance pay and attorney fees. The county is being asked to pay a $26,000 legal bill without requested detail on what significantly boosted the bill.

Diedra Grzymala resigned as the executive director of the Crawford County Library effective Feb. 24. On Feb. 21, the Crawford County Quorum Court approved an ordinance that authorized the county to pay Grzymala $40,687.50 as part of a severance agreement. The ordinance also states that the county will continue to pay for Gryzmala’s health and dental insurance through Sept. 1.

Gryzmala’s resignation stemmed from controversy regarding the acquisition and display of books at the library. The controversy began in November when Tammi Hamby, now chair of the Crawford County Library Board, and her husband, Dr. Jeffrey Hamby, a Van Buren family physician, spearheaded a campaign against LBGQT+ books being available through the library system and Grzymala’s book display of LBGQT+ children’s books set up at the Van Buren Public Library in November.

Hamby was appointed to the board by Crawford County Judge Chris Keith and named the board chair after former chair Jamie Balkman and two other board members resigned after a contentious Quorum Court meeting in December. Since that time, the board has had to consider actions that can be taken on books that have been challenged by citizens and whether the board should change policy about how books are acquired.

Throughout the ordeal, the Crawford County Library Board racked up $26,000 in attorney fees. During a March 14 library board meeting, board member Keith Pigg questioned Gentry Wahlmeier with Wahlmeier Law Firm regarding the attorney’s fees. After noting that the fees were exceptionally high, Pigg asked if he could get more detail than that the fees were from extraordinary research and advisement, as he was told when he first asked for a detailed bill.

The board received a bill from Wahlmeier after the first of the year for $12,000 for services from October through mid-December and $14,000 for mid-December through February. Wahlmeir said invoices were held until after Jan. 1 because he knew the library system was over budget for 2022, so bills were presented when the new budget would be able to cover his fees.

According to Gryzmala, who spoke at the March 14 meeting, attorney fees typically ranged around $3,000 for “a few months.” Wahlmeier’s bill amounts to $5,200 a month for the five months.

“We never paid over $4,000,” she said. “And that was never for one month.”

Wahlmeier said his services were used much more from mid-October through February. When asked by Pigg if there were any records in his office that could show hours or phone calls or anything specific that could account for the high bill, he said there were not.

“I cannot go back and reconstruct the time at this point. I think, Keith, you were here; I went running to the sirens when the sirens were here. I went to bat for the (library) system when no one else would,” Wahlmeier said of his work for the library system during that time. “I’m not going to sit here and recreate a record.”

After several e-mail exchanges, Wahlmeier provided this response to Talk Business & Politics: “It (legal fee bill) is well above the norm because the library is not experiencing its normal workload. Normally I review policies and contracts; make sure they are in compliance with applicable laws; attend their meetings; give advice about day-to-day operations; and inform them about procedures. Since October, it has been more like managing a litigation client. The library is under constant threat of lawsuit. Police have to maintain order in their meetings. 4/5 members of the Board resigned. The Director resigned. All of that placed more responsibility with me. It has been a tough time at the library system.”

Balkman, chair of the Crawford County Library Board in 2022, said at the meeting that Walhmeier had called “almost daily since October” because of matters facing the library system. Walhmeier is the legal counsel for the Crawford County Library board and the Crawford County Quorum Court. He has no contract as either.

Wahlmeier has also told Talk Business & Politics he has historically billed the library “very, very low out of a sense of duty to our community.” He said in the past, there have been a few legal issues within the system, and the agreement has been based on an hourly rate.

“(It) makes sense that more legal work brings more charges. The bulk of the work that I have done is answer threats of lawsuit. Believe it or not, there is very little case law on public libraries,” Wahlmeier said. “Understanding how the First Amendment, Arkansas Law, and case law work together to govern Arkansas’ public libraries requires a lot of synthesis from other areas of First Amendment law.”

The library board asked that future bills be itemized with hours, which Wahlmeier said he would be happy to provide. He also said he believed fees for the rest of the year would remain high. He said over the past five years, there hasn’t been anything large that demanded much time from the attorney for the board.

“But there are real meaningful issues being discussed (now). I would anticipate for the rest of 2023 to be higher than it was in 2018, 2019, 2020 or 2021, where it was mostly simple discussions about administrative work,” Wahlmeier said.

Crawford County Judge Chris Keith said he could not comment on the cost caused by the Hamby’s actions to remove and/or block certain books because the decisions made were by the library board. While Keith did appoint Hamby to the board along with two others to fill vacancies left by resignations following the December meeting, he said the chair of the board was decided by the board itself.

“It’s a bad situation, but I think we are getting past it,” Keith said. “From what I understand, everything is being worked out. Books were moved, but there weren’t any books pulled. No one is trying to take books out of the library. … This (Crawford County) is a tight-knit community. I think we need to get both sides to understand the other and join and work together on this.”