A former city attorney called accusations by Alma’s mayor that he used a city office for personal business a lie.
In an effort to delegitimize a decision by the Alma City Council, Mayor Keith Greene has circulated a letter via email accusing the city’s new attorney of asking for excessive compensation and the former attorney of fraud.
No evidence could be found to substantiate Greene’s claims.
In his letter, the mayor said it is his “understanding” that former city attorney Chuck Baker, now Crawford County district judge, used his office at the city for personal business.
“That’s a lie,” Baker said. “I was not engaged in private practice of any kind after I left Baker law firm. The only work that was ever performed by me anywhere was work for government entities.”
At the time Baker was city attorney and city prosecutor, he also worked as a Crawford County deputy prosecuting attorney.
“The state office of discipline for attorneys oversees all attorneys’ bank accounts,” Baker said. “If I had made a deposit from a private source, that office would have been alerted and taken action.”
Attorneys are overseen by the Arkansas Judiciary Office of the Committee on Professional Conduct directed by attorney Stark Ligon.
An attorney found in violation of the law could face anything from a reprimand to disbarment, said Alma City Attorney Rinda Baker, who is not related to Chuck Baker.
“No attorney that I know is willing to risk that,” Rinda Baker said.
In an interview conducted Thursday, Feb. 9, Greene confirmed that he believed Chuck Baker had performed private business from the city office.
Greene’s evidence was that people called the city hall asking for Chuck Baker “that had no business with the city.”
According to former mayor John Ballentine, there often were people coming into the city offices asking to see the city attorney.
“Most of them were going through our court system, but some of them just wanted to see the city attorney for some reason,” Ballentine said.
Because of the need and the fact that Chuck Baker had no office at that time, Ballentine gave him a permanent office in the municipal building, he said.
The city attorney’s office was not provided on a temporary basis, as Greene claimed in his circulated letter.
“It wasn’t temporary - that was the city attorney’s office,” Ballentine said.
Nor was it required by law that the city council approve the decision to designate the office for the city attorney, just as the city council had no official part in Greene’s decision to re-designate the office for the new city planner.
“The use of city facilities is up to the mayor,” Chuck Baker said.
This is not the first time the mayor has been called dishonest. Councilman Jerry Martin used those exact words during the Jan. 21 city council meeting in regards to a statement Greene read denouncing a $1,500 a month reimbursement request by Rinda Baker.
Council members unanimously approved the reimbursement request based on a cost estimate provided by Rinda Baker, who works out of her personal office, for items such as rent, utilities, car allowance, postage and supplies.
In his statement, Greene called Rinda Baker’s request a “pay increase” and read information he had gathered from the municipal league that came from a study conducted by the Johanson Group. The information indicated that attorneys for cities similar in size to Alma made significantly less than Rinda Baker.
Martin noted that the request was a reimbursement of her own expenses, not a pay increase, and that the information provided by Greene was incomplete in that it only showed salaries, not total compensation for those attorneys.
Additional information provided by those cities shows that those attorneys also received benefits such as car allowances, insurance and additional money for court expenses - putting their total compensation from $43,386 to $54,322.44.
Rinda Baker, who operates as both city attorney and city prosecutor, receives a salary of $48,000 with no additional benefits of any kind.
With his circulated letter, Greene provided what he said is a list of city attorney expenses on city record for 2014, 2015 and 2016, totaling $5,622.11 for all three years.
Not included in the list of expenses are provisions such as the city attorney’s office and the cost of a separate phone line.
Councilman John Ware also took issue with the list of attorney expenses, which the mayor claims in his letter was put together “within in hour’s time.”
“I am struggling somewhat with what appears to be a lack of comprehensiveness in the itemized list,” Ware said.
Ware noted that most of the cited expenses appear to be Lexis Nexis subscription fees and what he called “incredibly low” office supply costs.
“What really caught my attention was that over the three-year period reported in the mayor’s document, former city attorney Chuck Baker appears to have spent less than $300 on office supplies such as computer software, business cards, stamps, toner, etc.,” Ware said. “This number seems incredibly low - so I would conclude that the list of expenses is either not complete, Chuck Baker paid for some of his expenses out of his own pocket, which I would not support, or he should be given some type of award for using less than 1 percent of the General Fund’s budget for office supplies over the same three-year period.”
Ware also pointed out that continuing education costs, which should be incurred each year, are only listed once in 2015, but not 2014 or 2016.
“My position … is that the city attorney should be provided a place to conduct city business, along with necessary office equipment and supplies to carry out that business,” Ware said. “I would not expect Wayne to do his job as city clerk from home and pay for his own supplies and equipment. The same applies to the mayor - we provide an office, equipment, supplies and support staff for him to complete his job. We don’t ask that he pay for those things out of his salary.”
Greene admitted in a Feb. 16 interview that there may be some costs that were not included on his list.
“It’s possible, but there wouldn’t be any significant amount,” Greene said.
Greene has persisted in the subject of Rinda Baker’s reimbursement request ostensibly as a matter of fiscal conservatism, but Chuck Baker doubts that motivation, he said.
“He talks about being fiscally conservative - he’s got more employees in the mayor’s office than we’ve had in the history of Alma,” Baker said.
Working in the mayor’s office is the Alma City Clerk Wayne Beck, part-time city clerk/treasurer and full-time clerical staff; Brooklyne Lunsford, full-time clerical staff; and Destiny Brockett, full-time administrative assistant to the mayor.
In previous years, the mayor’s staff only has included a city clerk and one person in clerical.
Another issue Greene has with Rinda Baker’s reimbursement request is that she made it six days after entering office.
In Rinda Baker’s opinion, it would have been inappropriate for her to make the reimbursement request to the city council when she was a sitting council member.
Rinda Baker made the request as soon as she was able after taking office so that it could be included in the 2017 budget, which was approved at the same Jan. 21 council meeting as the reimbursement, she said.
Greene made a similar request himself, for an actual pay raise, from the $16,000 yearly salary planned for the mayor in the 2015 budget to $25,000 a year.
Councilman Eddie Wakefield proposed the increased salary, which was approved by council members at the Jan. 22, 2015, council meeting.
“Within days of having been elected as mayor, before he took office, he called me at home and said he had been misled about the mayor’s pay and demanded a $10,000 raise,” Wakefield said.
While campaigning for office, Greene thought the mayor’s pay was closer to $25,000 because he was told so by Ballentine and saw it reported in the Southwest Times Record, he said.
Ballentine confirmed he told the mayor that he thought the pay was between $22,000 and $25,000, but he “wasn’t sure.”
Mayor’s pay traditionally has been set within the budget, Wakefield said. The most recent ordinance setting salary for the mayor that could be provided by the mayor’s office prior to the one approved in 2015 was approved in 1990 for $15,600.
Wakefield had no problem increasing the mayor’s pay because the mayor had campaigned on a promise to be a “full-time” mayor, he said - though by law there are no set work hours for an elected official.
It is unclear how schooled Greene himself is on the legal restrictions of an acting mayor and the boards he oversees. He still struggles with parliamentary procedure and often claims ignorance of the law as a defense for his actions.
In a letter to the editor in the Dec. 24 edition of the Southwest Times Record, Greene said the city took part in setting up a nativity scene on Alma United Methodist Church grounds that was purchased by the Alma Rotary Club.
Greene confirmed that city workers were used to both set up and take down the nativity, ignoring explicit legal advise from his city attorneys against such action.
Chuck Baker and Rinda Baker both warned Greene that continued use of city personnel to participate in this project may subject the city to significant damages and legal fees.
Chuck Baker in December advised city heads of just such a case against the City of Mountain Home which resulted in more than $20,000 in damages and attorney fees. Rinda Baker again warned the mayor in January via email.
Greene was asked if he realized that could be considered inappropriate and illegal use of city funds.
“It could be; it could be,” Greene said. “I doubt I’ll go to jail over that.”
Alma Rotary Club originally intended to provide money to the city to purchase the nativity scene, as discussed in a January 2016 council meeting.
Chuck Baker advised that the club should gift the money to an entity that could purchase and display the nativity without legal repercussions.
Greene said the only reason the city did not put out its own nativity scene, kept in the parks department storage, was because the lights are not in working order.
There have been other examples of Greene’s neglect of legal procedure since he took office.
On Oct. 27, 2015, Crawford County Clerk Teresa Armer had to refuse an unlawful request from the mayor to swear in Beck as city clerk.
Greene sent Beck to be sworn in as city clerk with a letter stating he was appointed by the mayor, Armer said when interviewed at the time of the incident.
Armer refused, noting two municipal laws and an opinion from the attorney general that state a city clerk must be appointed by the city council.
Greene defended his actions, stating that he did not know that was the “improper thing to do.” He only meant Beck to be a “temporary” clerk until one was appointed by the council, he said.
During an Aug. 18 city council meeting, Greene tried to appoint three alternates to the Alma Planning Commission even though he was advised by Baker that planning commission alternates are not allowed by law.
Jason Reeves, who was appointed to the commission at that meeting, had been an acting alternate for several months, along with at least one other.
Reeves sat on the commission as an alternate during the June 7 meeting, but never participated in an official vote. Reeves had “no idea” that he was not allowed to function in an official capacity as an alternate, he said.
When Chuck Baker told Greene during the meeting he was not allowed to appoint alternates, Greene said he was unaware of the law - even though Baker explicitly stated he had advised the mayor about the issue several weeks earlier.