Circling the wagons for defense

By Eddie A. Jones, AAC County Consultant

As a kid growing up in the 1950s and 60’s our home in Randolph County was often packed with folks to watch TV. Not everyone had a TV back in the 50’s. I nostalgically remember relatives and neighbors huddled around that black-and-white picture coming out of a wood grain box cabinet in our living room at Supply, Arkansas, and then our family room in Pocahontas.

We watched news with Chet Huntley and David Brinkley — the “Huntley-Brinkley Report.” Rather boring but what’s a kid gonna do? We watched the latest music sensations on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and Gillette’s “Friday Night Fights and Boxing” [I remember more about the Gillette commercials than I do the boxing]. The cowboy shows were numerous and favorites in those days. We would watch “Wells Fargo,” “The Roy Rogers Show,” “Bat Masterson,” “Gunsmoke,” “Laramie,” “Rawhide,” and “Bonanza.” And, of course, there was “Wagon Train.” In virtually every show the wagon master, after a report from scouts, had to circle the wagons.

“Circle the wagons” is an idiom we still use suggesting a group of people have to work together to protect themselves from some kind of external danger. The phrase has its origins in the migration of settlers from the East Coast and Midwest to the West during the 1800s. They traveled in covered, horse-drawn wagons — Conestoga wagons, sometimes called prairie schooners. At night, or when threatened during the day, these wagon trains would stop moving and form a circle on the frontier prairie as a means of protection against attack.

I was reminded of this during the 92nd General Assembly when county government was put in the position to protect our interests a few times. The natural reaction from county government was simple; just like in Wagon Train, our wagon master, AAC Executive Director Chris Villines, sounded the call. It was time to circle the wagons to stave off the attack. Thank you, county officials and employees for pulling your wagon into the circle to exercise much-needed defense.

One of those bills where the “circling the wagons” defense was used was HB 1059 — a “stand-your-ground” bill. Stand-your-ground laws have become popular across the United States, establishing a right by which a person may defend one’s self or others against threats or perceived threats, even to the point of applying lethal force. Some label stand-your-ground laws as “shoot first” laws — a return to the wild, wild, West with more regard for property than human life.

I believe the vast majority of Arkansas county officials are strong advocates of the 2nd Amendment to keep and bear arms. However, there are pros and cons to stand-your-ground laws. County officials concluded the cons outweighed the pros because (1) in states that have made stand-your-ground the law, self-defense claims double and even triple in the years following enactment; (2) stand-your-ground laws make it potentially more difficult to prosecute cases against individuals who commit a crime and claim self-defense; and (3) it is an encouragement for people to possibly use deadly physical force when it shouldn’t be used.

One of the prime responsibilities of county government is “public safety,” and a large percentage of a county’s budget is for law enforcement and the administration of justice — public safety. Counties of Arkansas desire to provide public safety, and we don’t want to increase the costs any more than possible.

A 2018 overview of existing research by RAND Corp. concluded there is evidence stand-your-ground laws increase homicide rates, and the laws increase firearm homicides in particular. Arkansas sheriffs and other county leaders made the decision that Arkansas’ strong castle laws have served our state well and we should maintain that doctrine.

A castle doctrine, also known as castle law, is a legal doctrine that designates a person’s home or any legally occupied place as a place in which that person has protections and immunities permitting one, in certain circumstances, to use force — up to and including deadly force.

In English common law the term is derived from the dictum that “an Englishman’s home is his castle.” English common law came with colonists to the New World, where it has become known as the castle doctrine. The castle doctrine in Arkansas allows the use of deadly force to defend one’s self, their home, and others on the property, if they feel they are about to be severely harmed or killed. It may also be used if the person believes a felony is about to be committed. [A.C.A. §§ 5-2-606; 5-2-607; 5-2-608; 5-2-620]

HB 1059 was filed in mid-January and was amended four times but died on the House calendar at sine die adjournment on April 24. Thank you for circling the wagons.

Another “circling the wagons” episode came with the filing of HB 1630 to exempt information pertaining to a law enforcement officer from the Freedom of Information Act and forbidding that information to be contained on public record websites. This was the reincarnation of a bill filed in the 2017 legislative session that was defeated at the end of the session.

In this instance, it is not the philosophical idea that counties are opposed to. We have the same concern for the safety of our law enforcement officers as do the sponsors of the legislation. The problem is a method of implementation that would actually work. These are official records such as land records, property tax records, etc. that must be readily available for legitimate purposes. County officials and other interested industries worked with the sponsors of this bill to find some way to make the idea work.

This bill was filed on Feb. 28 and finally a compromise was reached. On April 1 the bill was totally rewritten, deleting the original language and creating an Undercover Law Enforcement Officer Public Records Protection Study. The study is to examine and produce a method of protecting the privacy of active undercover law enforcement officers in their personal lives by exempting certain records regarding the law enforcement officers’ personal information from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.

HB 1630 is now Act 963 of 2019. The focus group appointed to achieve the purpose of the study will be required to submit a written report of its activities, findings, and recommendations, including any proposed legislation for the 2021 Regular Session to a joint meeting of the House and Senate Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs on or before May 1, 2020.

Then the scouts came back with another report — SB 636 was filed. We had to do it again. We had to circle the wagons around the “election coordinator bill.” And it was not because we don’t like election coordinators. Every county should have one. Every county needs one.

This bill was filed without consultation with county government. It added an additional subchapter of law concerning election coordinators and completely changed the landscape of a county election coordinator. Even more troublesome was the complete change in lines of authority and supervision.

This is an area of law that needs some clarification. But this bill did not do it. It did not clean up the issues, just muddled them more. After two weeks of negotiation with the sponsor of the bill, he withdrew it from committee and placed it on the Senate calendar for referral to be studied. On April 8 the Senate referred the matter to the Senate City, County and Local Affairs Committee for an interim study. Counties will gladly work with the Senate on this important issue.

These situations are just a sample of the times we had to “circle the wagons” to defend county government. There were times we had to defend sources of county revenue. And in one case, putting a cap on local sales tax rates — an issue put forward in the Tax Reform Legislative Task Force in 2018 — was never put forth in legislation because of our “pre-emptive circling of the wagons” from the beginning of the session — and because we were willing to work with Senate leadership on other key issues.

We remain cognizant of the fact that even when we find some legislative ideas disagreeable, harmful, and oppressive to county government, more times than not the sponsors of the bills, whether they be representatives or senators, are not trying to hurt county government. Many times they don’t know the negative impact their legislation will have on county government or they don’t see it as oppressive and harmful as we do. Whatever the case, we in county government try to remain respectful of our legislators and the important work they do as we work with them to explain our positions.

In fact, what we like to do is communicate and build relationships with our legislators. We want to work toward those things that help county government.

County government is in the unique position of delivering county services as outlined by the Constitution and state law and being a political subdivision of the state to help deliver state services. We are indeed a partner with the state of Arkansas. We would rather be building legislative relationships and playing offense any day of the week. The 92nd General Assembly was definitely a success story in relationship building — working well with numerous state representatives and senators, as well as the Governor’s office, to enact great legislation that will help county government for years to come.

The AAC legislative package consisted of 31 bills for the 92nd General Assembly. Of those 31 bills, 29 have been enacted into law. Several of these bills are very substantive in nature and not just “clean-up” legislation. We enjoy working with our legislators to enact good county government legislation.

Although our executive director, Chris Villines, shared some of this information in the previous edition of County Lines, let me summarize some of the good that was accomplished with communication and relationship building with our legislators.

Act 660 brings long needed 911 reform for our counties. This legislation not only will increase revenues for 911, but it also will bring efficiency reforms. The total number of Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) will be decreased over a period of time spreading the revenue to fewer PSAPs. At the same time, the increased revenue will help the remaining PSAPs upgrade technology. Communication with our legislators made this happen. Rep. Michelle Gray, Sen. Jason Rapert and Gov. Asa Hutchinson made this happen for counties.

Act 416 envelops the Senate and House leadership and the Governor’s new road plan that will moderately increase gas and diesel taxes at the wholesale level. The increase will provide around $12.6 million for county roads and bridges. Every penny of it is needed, and we are appreciative. The new road plan also includes a proposed constitutional amendment that will be on the ballot next November. When enacted, it will make permanent a one-half cent sales tax that is scheduled to expire in 2023. This would continue funding of around $44 million per year for county roads and bridge.

Act 808 brings with it several things on county government’s needs list and some of our legislative agenda. The property tax relief credit was increased from a maximum of $350 to $375 per year, providing most of our homeowners with a reduced property tax bill. The same bill provides an almost $8.3 million appropriation for voting equipment for our counties — something some of our counties are in dire need of. It also provides our assessors with a level funding amount for their Amendment 79 Fund used to administer the property tax relief program. Our hats are off to President Pro Tempore Sen. Jim Hendren, Rep. Lanny Fite and House Revenue and Tax Committee Chair Rep. Joe Jett for working through the issues to get this bill enacted.

Act 327 handled capably by Rep. Keith Slape and Sen. Ronald Caldwell will increase revenues for jail operations and training. This legislation increases the booking fee from $20 to $40 paid by criminal defendants convicted or pleading no contest to felonies or Class A misdemeanors. This could increase jail operation revenues by $1 million, or close to it. Additionally, a small percentage of this revenue will be allocated to the Arkansas Law Enforcement Training Academy for jailer and jailer administrator training. The more training we can provide for these personnel, the less likely we are to have valid lawsuits against our jails.

Act 822 was a long time coming but it’s finally here. Marketplace fairness, as we call it. Internet sales have grown rapidly in the last few years and that has hurt the growth of sales tax collections for the state, counties and municipalities because so many out-of-state vendors did not and were not required to collect and remit sales taxes. Act 822 provides the legal mechanism to collect new sales tax revenue. We don’t have a good figure for the increase, but we can expect at least a few million extra dollars in county sales tax collections because of this legislation. Thanks to Sen. Bart Hester and Rep. Dan Douglas for carrying the water on this legislation.

The year 2019 was a banner legislative year for county government. I have mentioned a few names of people who sponsored some of the major legislation, but I could just as well listed almost the entire roster of the House and Senate who sponsored other bills for us, who championed our causes, and who helped us defeat bad legislation. AAC and county officials around the state communicated and built relationships. That’s what success is all about.

Depending on which seasons you may have watched “Wagon Train,” original wagon master Major Seth Adams (Ward Bond) and wagon train scout Flint McCullough (Robert Horton) or the 60’s wagon master Christopher Hale (John McIntire) and scout Coop Smith (Robert Fuller) would have been proud of our “wagon circling defense.” When we had to play defense to protect county government interests this session, we were successful. Thanks to the willingness of county officials across the state to get involved.

When the wagon train scout came back with the final report at the end of the session it turned out to be a rip-roarin’, rip-snortin’ session for county government. Much was accomplished. Whether we must “circle the wagons” playing defense or “lead the charge” playing offense, let’s at least tell the scout to search for opportunities to keep the wagon train (county government) on this new and better trail. Communication and relationship building should be utilized when playing defense or offense. We want to be ready to move when our Wagon master, Chris Villines, declares: “Wagons, ho!”

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