Judge, JP Offer Public Apology
Just before the Mississippi County Quorum Court unanimously overrode Mississippi County Judge John Alan Nelson's veto Tuesday night, Justice of the Peace Michael White and Judge Nelson offered public apologies for comments they made following a move of the finance director's office from under the county judge to under the treasurer.
In November, the quorum court approved a measure that moved the ability to hire and fire a finance director from the county judge to the treasurer.
Days later, Judge Nelson vetoed the amendment and claimed it was written without any transparency and conflicted with state.
"Putting into the hands of a single branch of government the power to transfer a part of the County Judge's office out of his purview and into another elected official's department during the fiscal year without any check to that power is not only bad public policy, but contrary to the law," Judge Nelson wrote to the Quorum Court in the three-page veto filed on Dec. 2.
White claimed in an October meeting at the justice's place of business, Judge Nelson threatened to fire finance director Kelli Jones and bring back former finance director Brenda Burke if he didn't help get the county judge's son, John David Nelson, on the county payroll, an allegation that Judge Nelson denied. White wrote an email to other justices calling the alleged move blackmail and saying he could not work with Burke. Burke told the NEA Town Courier that Nelson did indeed ask her to come back to work for the county and that she was hurt and angered by comments from White and Judge Nelson. Though Jones never spoke publicly, she hired an attorney who threatened via a letter to the county judge to use the Whistleblower act if action was taken against the finance director such as termination.
"There has been some articles in the newspaper that have been unfortunate," White said during Tuesday night's quorum court meeting. "A big part of the unfortunate part is some of the people that were mentioned in those newspaper articles. Brenda Burke was a true servant of Mississippi County. Both Judge Nelson and myself worked with her for a number of years. Brenda worked for the county for almost 40 years, and she did a truly wonderful job and service to the county. I owe her an apology, and I want to give her an apology personally for her name being used in any shape, form or fashion. She and I worked very closely together during the time that I was Finance chair that she was here. I saw nothing but care and service to the county, and if I said anything that was misunderstood, misrepresented in any way I would like to certainly apologize to Brenda Burke for that. Then I'm sorry also to (current county finance director) Kelli (Jones) for her being brought into some of this through the newspaper articles. Kelli is still doing a good service to the county. I'm sorry if she has been misaligned in anything that I've done in any way, has caused her harm or concern, and I apologize to her also. I think they both deserve at least my public apology on that."
"This is not personal on anybody," White continued. "I've studied and studied and studied why did we not do this for Brenda Burke. We've got two elected officials that have extremely large budgets. The county sheriff and the county judge both have five, six, seven million dollar budgets between their combined accounts. We've been fortunate to have some really good elected officials over the years, and it's not been cause for concern."
White has said the ordinance was changed in 2011 - the late county judge Randy Carney's first year in office - and it put pressure on Burke to not report issues to the quorum court.
White said he has lost a lot of sleep "thinking about why did we not do that."
"Honestly, one night it did hit me, the reason we did not fix it back then was we were under both state and federal investigations," White said. "Brenda and I both were directly involved with those. At that time, we were the only ones that were directly involved in those with the county. The investigators had requested that we not rock the boat. They were quietly conducting their studies and so truly we weren't rocking the boat and we didn't fix this for Brenda and that was a grave mistake and I'm sorry for that. Nothing against Judge Nelson at all, I wish we would have done this with Ms. (Terri) Brassfield when she was judge; it just didn't occur."
White said finance director doesn't need to feel undo stress and concerns.
"I'm not saying that Judge Nelson is doing that at all," White said. "I'm just saying it needs to be fixed for now and in the future."
Judge Nelson added, "And I would like to apologize publically as well both to Kelli and to Ms. Burke too and to the quorum court and to the county, If I've caused any harm, I apologize. I would like to get back on track, I want to work with everyone here. It's no secret that I have been against this but at the same time this has been an extremely busy year, and I can find some gratefulness that I've being relieved of some of these duties because with the new courthouse project, this has been more than a handful."
Judge Nelson told the NEA Town Courier that he will not ask the circuit court to overturn the quorum court's decision to move the finance office.
"We truly want to work as a court with you, and we don't want to step on you in any shape, form or fashion," White said.
"And I do not want to cross bounds over into the quorum court," Nelson said.
"You are our CEO; you are our county CEO and we respect that," White said. "We think that you have the ability to be the best that we've ever had."
Nelson said, "I don't want to make an excuse, but the first year is tough."
White said they "loaded you up" when he came into office.
"It wasn't fair to you that we put so much on you at the beginning," White said. "We didn't give you a fair start to begin with."
In other news, the quorum court approved bonuses for employees, with full-time employees receiving a $600 bonus and part-time a $300 bonus on their Dec. 31 check. The court also approved the 2020 budget and renamed Kennemore Drive in Osceola to Correnti/Kennemore Parkway. Also, the court established a motor fuel tax fund.
Meanwhile, Judge Nelson reflected on 2019 at the close of the decade's final quorum court meeting.
"It's been an enjoyable year, but 2019 has been a tough year," Nelson said.
Nelson said the budget has been a "tremendous burden to overcome."
"I would also like to thank Kelli for her long hours and difficult work and the finance committee," Judge Nelson said. "I'm also thankful to our new quorum court members, Justice (Molly) Jackson and Justice (Betty) Hepler, for their quick learning of county government. Like I said, the year has been filled with a lot of accomplishments and I'm grateful for the help of the quorum court."
Nelson thanked voters for approving the Blytheville and Osceola courthouse renovations, noting he has learned a lot about bond issues and working with architects over the last several months.
"Those were some exhausting months," Judge Nelson said. "I'm grateful that we've gotten most all of this behind us and hopefully things will slow down and get to be at a regular pace. I thank each and every one of you and all the elected officials for making this job a lot easier. We'll move onto 2020 and see what we can accomplish there."