Politics trumped by perseverance

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Last week’s Independent included an article about the retirement of Circuit Clerk Ramona Wilson after 22 years in office. For most of those years, Wilson ran for re-election without opposition. Her long career included one contentious period, however, after she stood up to the judge who wanted to close the Eureka Springs courthouse.

In 2008, Kent Crow was elected as circuit judge. During a previous tenure as a district judge, Crow had advocated for a new courthouse to replace the county’s two antiquated courthouses. Early in his term as circuit judge, Crow ruled that Carroll County should only have one county seat. His ruling would have required Wilson to consolidate all the county’s records in Berryville.

Wilson had no advance warning of Crow’s ruling until he filed it in her office. The order would have given her only a few months to consolidate all the county’s records, and the Berryville courthouse barely had enough space for the eastern district records. Both sets of records had the same book and page numbers, so Wilson would have had to create two separate filing systems in one location. “People from Holiday Island or Mundell Road would have had to go all the way to Berryville for their records,” Wilson said. In addition, people in and around Eureka Springs felt a sense of ownership with their historical courthouse.

Aside from practical considerations, Wilson said one factor guided her decision to file a suit contesting Crow’s ruling. “I knew he didn’t have the power to issue that order,” she said. “He was overstepping his bounds.”

Wilson’s lawsuit was heard in the Arkansas Supreme Court where justices wrote, “The circuit judge proceeded wholly without jurisdiction in issuing his standing order, and his order shows a plain, manifest, clear, and gross abuse of discretion,” the ASC ruled in October 2010.

Wilson said she felt validated by the ruling, saying, “I knew I was right.”

Even before the ASC decided against Crow, Justice of the Peace Ron Flake launched an attack on Wilson in the quorum court. Flake, a central figure in the Carroll County Republican Party, began complaining in quorum court about the money owed to the circuit court from uncollected fines. He continued to lead discussions throughout that election-year summer, although other JPs eventually pointed out that every other county in the state had serious arrears in circuit court.

Flake had campaigned from the quorum court table for the Republican candidate for circuit clerk. She worked as district court clerk, and Flake repeatedly tried to compare her collection rate to Wilson’s.

The discussion lasted over several quorum court meetings before JPs concluded they could not compare collections in the two offices. District Court collects traffic tickets from people with jobs. Wilson was tasked with collecting fines and restitution from people in jail, chronically unemployed, or on the run.

Wilson handily won re-election that year, but her opponents on the quorum court tried again in the summer of 2012. In the meantime, the ASC had issued its rebuke of Crow’s ruling, but that did not soften the Republican assault on Wilson. In that summer of 2012, Flake brought up the same contentions, with the same result. Although the quorum court took no action, discussions gave Flake an opportunity to campaign against Wilson. In November, however, Wilson won re-election in a landslide.

Flake went through the quorum court process again in 2014. He tried to have collection authority transferred to Carroll County Sheriff Bob Grudek, a Republican who needed a boost for the coming election. The quorum court decided to keep Wilson in charge of collections, and Grudek lost his bid for re-election.

Throughout that series of quorum court meetings, Wilson remained outwardly stoic, although she admits to some “unladylike” thoughts. “I got a little defensive at times, but I had an image to maintain as a professional circuit clerk,” she said. When Flake and his cohorts challenged her the second time, Wilson said, “I wouldn’t fight back, and all I could do was maintain my dignity.”

By the third round, Wilson said, she still knew it was political, “but it felt personal. I suffered because of it.” She remembers the exasperation she felt hearing the same misguided attacks. “Really? Again? I was tired of it, but I had to ‘keep on keeping on.’

“The quorum court in those years was so contentious. They fought about everything, and they couldn’t agree, because they were split on party lines.” She drew a contrast with the present quorum court, who “all work together in harmony and are dedicated to the people of the county.”

Later in 2014, Republican State Sen. Bryan King announced an audit of Wilson’s office. At the time, King was Chair of the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee. The state conducts annual audits of county departments, and Wilson had only one negative comment in 15 years of audits – when the bank serving her office stopped sending canceled checks and converted to scanning them, the bank used an image too small for state standards. Other than that, auditors had never found anything out of place.

When King announced the state audit of the circuit clerk, he was asked in an interview about Wilson’s near-perfect record with annual audits. King said he had heard many complaints about her job performance. After the obvious follow-up question, King identified Flake and Grudek as the source of those questions.

The audit cost taxpayers more than $25,000 and found no serious problems.

Wilson said she and King have made peace, and she felt better after releasing the resentment which had unsettled her for so long. “It was personal to me, and I’ll never forget,” she said. Although she can’t forget, she can forgive, and Wilson enjoys the serenity that comes from letting go of the bitter taste of the past. “That’s how I was raised, and that’s who I am,” she said.

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