Dark times

Will Cave Springs emerge from rocky con­di­tions?

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - EDITORIAL PAGE -

If the lit­tle Ben­ton County town of Cave Springs were ever to grow big enough to have its own high school, per­haps the mas­cot would be the blind cave fish.

Those lit­tle crit­ters, living in cold waters in caves around the Spring­field plateau of the Ozark Moun­tains, are en­dan­gered, ad­versely ef­fected by dam­age to their ecosys­tem brought on by development and other changes. But they’re hang­ing on and have long found the in­te­rior of the cave sys­tem for which the 3,800-res­i­dent town is named a hospitable en­vi­ron­ment.

The cave fish live in the dark, a con­di­tion ap­par­ently sim­i­lar to the en­vi­ron­ment in which the city’s elected of­fi­cials have be­come ac­cus­tomed. How else can any­one ex­plain the damn­ing re­port re­cently re­leased by the state’s Leg­isla­tive Au­dit that re­vealed city lead­ers had over­com­pen­sated em­ploy­ees, made pur­chases be­yond au­tho­rized amounts and mis­man­aged tax­payer money?

The re­port said the city failed to meet the re­quire­ments of state law in 22 in­stances in 2015 and 2016.

The city recorder-trea­surer, Kim­berly Hutch­e­son, was over­paid by $14,509 in 2016, the au­di­tors found.

Au­di­tors also found the city had spent $10,490 more than the City Coun­cil au­tho­rized for the pur­chase of a ve­hi­cle in April 2016. The city paid more than au­tho­rized for the $23,500 base unit, then the ve­hi­cle had ac­ces­sories that added $10,155 to the cost.

Justin Eich­mann, the city at­tor­ney who re­turned to give le­gal ad­vice in April after re­sign­ing last Au­gust in a clash with Mayor Travis Lee, called the au­dit re­port “one of the worst I’ve ever seen.”

The au­dit found mis­ap­pli­ca­tion of money. For ex­am­ple, $61,307 was pulled from the city’s street fund and placed in its general fund, a move that breaks state law, ac­cord­ing to au­di­tors. More than $131,000 of fran­chise tax rev­enue pledged to serve the city’s debt was moved to the street fund in 2016, the au­di­tors said. Eich­mann said that er­ror has been cor­rected.

Mayor Lee hired at­tor­neys with­out City Coun­cil ap­proval, the au­dit said. The city also paid a ven­dor $1,093 to set up a non­profit called Friends of Cave Springs, for which the mayor, recorder-trea­surer and a city em­ployee were of­fi­cers. Au­di­tors said that con­flicted with the state Con­sti­tu­tion. Not to men­tion the fact that with “friends” like these, who can af­ford en­e­mies?

Ben­ton County Pros­e­cu­tor Nathan Smith ear­lier re­viewed the fail­ure to au­tho­rize the prop­erty tax and found no ev­i­dence of crim­i­nal in­tent. He’s said to be re­view­ing the au­dit’s find­ings. It has seemed he’s ea­ger to stay out of the fray in Cave Springs — who can blame any­one for that? — but the au­dit can hardly be ig­nored. He’s the pros­e­cu­tor and the au­dit demon­strates se­ri­ous prob­lems with the way Cave Springs lead­ers are con­duct­ing busi­ness on be­half of the pub­lic they rep­re­sent.

Nei­ther Lee nor Hutch­e­son spoke with this news­pa­per’s re­porter im­me­di­ately fol­low­ing the re­lease of the au­dit re­port. In the past, they’ve had a ten­dency to point their fin­gers at each other when it comes to blame for city is­sues. Who would be shocked if it hap­pened again?

Cave Springs, as an or­ga­ni­za­tion, is a mess. The mayor may not be the cause of it all, but he’s the city’s top elected of­fi­cial and has a re­spon­si­bil­ity to take the lead in work­ing out these de­fi­cien­cies. Hutch­e­son has sued Lee and some al­der­man, claim­ing they were pre­vent­ing her from do­ing her job. Some city em­ploy­ees have sued Hutch­e­son and some al­der­men, claim­ing they were tar­geted be­cause they sup­ported Lee.

Be­yond the in­ter­per­sonal clashes, the list of er­rors and omis­sions the au­dit found are quite ex­ten­sive. At the least, it’s ev­i­dence Cave Springs’s dys­func­tion isn’t just about per­son­al­i­ties, but ca­pa­bil­i­ties. The peo­ple who live in Cave Springs de­serve so much more from their elected lead­ers. It’s hard enough to run a town when ev­ery­one is co­op­er­at­ing and the rules are being fol­lowed. Throw in some con­flict and dis­re­gard for state laws and city poli­cies and chaos is guar­an­teed.

Some may write such cir­cum­stances off as just typ­i­cal small­town pol­i­tics, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Small towns are filled with smart peo­ple who know how to get things done and how to be self-suf­fi­cient. Their lead­ers need to find ways to work to­gether and if they find them­selves in­ca­pable, it may be time to move into an­other line of work.

The health of the blind cave fish is a strong in­di­ca­tor of the con­di­tions of the en­vi­ron­ment sur­round­ing its habi­tat. In Cave Springs, the ca­pac­ity of elected lead­ers to co­op­er­ate to­ward ef­fec­tive gov­ern­ment is a strong in­di­ca­tor of what kind of com­mu­nity the city will be­come.

No fu­ture is guar­an­teed for ei­ther the city or the cave fish. Only one of them will thrive in dark con­di­tions.

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