The only stupid question is the one you don’t ask
By Eddie A. Jones
“There’s no such thing as a stupid question” is a popular phrase with a long history. It suggests that the quest for knowledge includes failure and that just because one person may know less than others, they should not be afraid to ask rather than pretend they already know. In many cases multiple people may not know but are too afraid to ask the “stupid question;” the one who asks the question may in fact be doing a service to those around them.
Carl Sagan, in his writings said: “There are naïve questions, tedious questions, ill-phrased questions … but every question is a cry to understand. There is no such thing as a dumb question.”
Seems to me we’ve all been there. A question sits right on the tip of your tongue but you just can’t — no, you won’t — ask it. Pushing back questions that surface is equivalent to painting over mildew. It might take the problem off your mind for a short time, but you have not addressed the underlying problem. And when the mildew resurfaces you’ve let a minor problem turn into a bigger problem.
There are many reasons we give ourselves to not ask the question:
Maybe you asked it already and got an answer, but you aren’t satisfied.
Maybe you feel you should know the answer, but you don’t.
Maybe you think everyone else understands what was said — they probably don’t.
Want to know what I think? I’ll tell you anyway — DON’T DO IT. Find a way to get over, past, or around whatever is causing you to hit your pause button. Ask your question. And don’t just ask it, ask it until it is answered and you are comfortable that it has been answered correctly.
As a county official or a deputy to an elected official, you have raised your right hand and sworn to uphold the laws governing your office … and to uphold the Constitution of the State of Arkansas … and to uphold the Constitution of the United States. Don’t take that lightly. You are bound by law to operate your county office in a lawful manner. Do not. and I repeat, do not take as an answer, “Here’s how I do it…” and then the explanation. As part of the answer to your question, always require the Arkansas code or case law — something that provides a definitive answer.
If you have a question, the worst thing you can do is let it go unanswered. You may even get a few non-verbal responses: a blank stare, an eyeroll and a sigh. Yes, maybe you have temporarily frustrated a few people who want out of the meeting. There are always a few who don’t want to be there anyway. Ask your question.
If you don’t understand something, just assume someone else is also in the dark. Odds are there are others with the same question or questions making circles in their minds. If it strikes you as important, ask the question then and there. Just deal with the non-verbal reactions head on and probe until you get an answer. I guarantee you that doing so will yield an “a-ha” moment for someone else in the room.
One of my primary responsibilities as a consultant for the Association of Arkansas Counties is to answer questions for county officials and provide guidance concerning the lawful operation of their office. I answer numerous questions on a daily basis. In my answers I do my best to provide any law that governs; applicable Attorney General (AG) Opinions; case law that is on point; and any ethical issues that may be involved.
I’m always available for your questions. I try to provide answers in writing and try to remember there’s no such thing as a stupid question, as long as it ends in a question mark. Here are a few examples of how I try to answer your questions:
Is it against the law to hire family? Can a county official hire a wife, son, daughter, in-law, etc.?
Hiring a family member is called “nepotism,” and if nepotism is to be prohibited at the county level it is accomplished by ordinance of the county governing body — the quorum court. State law does not include a general nepotism prohibition for county government. However, Ark Code § 14-14-805 grants authority to the county legislative body to implement a nepotism policy for the county.
Ironically, Ark Code § 14-14-805 is a code concerning powers that are denied the quorum court. Subsection (2) of this code, after addressing some things that the quorum court cannot address legislatively, says “subject to the limitations imposed by the Arkansas Constitution and state law regarding these subject areas, a quorum court may exercise any legislative authority with regard to employee policy and practices of a general nature, including but not limited to, establishment of general vacation and sick leave policies, general office hour policies, general policies with reference to nepotism, or general policies to be applicable to the hiring of county employees.”
The enactment of nepotism policies has been held by the Arkansas Supreme Court to be within the legislative authority of a quorum court in a 1979 case, Henderson v. Russell. [See AG Opinion Nos. 1992-344 and 1997-380]
I have been told by auditors that a county cannot pay a penalty on overdue bills. I realize that a county should not get in this position, but is that correct? Is a county not allowed by law to pay late charges or interest on delinquent bills?
There are no laws that keep a county from paying a penalty if, in fact, they find themselves in a position that a penalty is applied because of late payment of a payable.
However, “interest” is a different story. A county is allowed to pay interest only on bond issues or when taking advantage of short-term financing. A county is prohibited from paying interest constitutionally except for the exceptions mentioned — and those exceptions are provided by constitutional amendment.
Interest is legally defined as “the compensation fixed by agreement or allowed by law for the use of money.” Article 16, § 1 of the Arkansas Constitution says, “Neither the State nor any city, county, town or other municipality in this State shall ever lend its credit for any purposes whatever; nor shall any county, city or town or municipality ever issue any interest bearing evidences of indebtedness, except such bonds as may be authorized by law…” Amendment 78 of the Constitution provides for short-term financing for counties and cities allowing interest. Amendments 62, 65 and 72 also allow various types of bond issues and debt obligations, which entail interest.
However, a “penalty” is legally defined as “an extra charge against a party who violates a contractual provision.” When a county makes a purchase from a vendor, it automatically agrees to the terms of payment. If those terms are not met the county is subject to paying the penalty just like anyone else. I find no law or AG Opinion to the contrary.
Are the Juvenile Probation Fee Fund and the Juvenile Court Representation Fund the same fund by different names?
No. They are separate funds for separate purposes. The codes establishing and regulating both funds were amended by Act 1175 of 2011 which reworked much of the juvenile court code.
Ark Code § 16-13-326 renamed the Juvenile Probation Fee Fund the Circuit Court Juvenile Division Fund. This fund is now the fund for all court costs, fines, and fees assessed by the juvenile division of the circuit court. These moneys are to be used to support the juveniles and juvenile division court services and programs.
Ark Code § 9-27-316 deals with the right to counsel. The court is to order financially able parents or custodians to pay all or part of reasonable attorney’s fees and expenses for court-appointed representation. These moneys collected by the clerk are to be retained by the clerk and deposited into a special fund to be known as the Juvenile Court Representation Fund [9-27-316(b)(3)(4)(5)]. The court can then direct that money from this fund be used in providing counsel for indigent parents or custodians at the trial level in dependency-neglect cases. Arkansas AG Opinion No. 93-071 also confirms that this fund is to remain on the books of the Circuit Clerk.
A 1970 Dear Abby column said: “There is no such thing as a stupid question if it’s sincere. Better to ask and risk appearing stupid than to continue on your ignorant way and make a stupid mistake.” Just to make it clear, it was Abigail Van Buren who said that. I’ll be a little less frank and say, “Seems to me, if you don’t have the answer, ask the question.” My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and my cell phone number is 870-810-0115. I get overloaded with questions at times, so if I don’t get back with you immediately, know that I will get back to you.
A woman recounting a story about an old man who used to answer all her “stupid questions,” as she called them, said the old man explained, “Sherry, if you ask a question, it makes you look stupid for 5 minutes, but if you don’t ask, you stay stupid for 50 years, so always ask questions in your life.”
You can let me be the old man who answers your questions. I’ve been in this business for 41 years, but even I ask questions. Don’t expect me to tickle your ears. I’ll give you what I believe to be the correct answer whether it’s the answer you’re looking for or not. The one trouble with asking questions is that you sometimes get answers you don’t want to hear. But a great truth is that answers exist only to questions. Coach Lou Holtz said, “I never learn anything talking, I only learn things when I ask questions.