Members of the Little Rock Board of Directors spoke in a meeting Wednesday about the ongoing rift between City Attorney Tom Carpenter and outside attorneys over the preliminary settlement of a lawsuit against the city over the 2019 police fatal shooting of Bradley Blackshire.
It was the first time city directors have spoken publicly about the dispute. Several took the opportunity to raise concerns about the settlement being reached without the city attorney informing them of the terms of the agreement.
At one point during the meeting, Carpenter said a decision had apparently been made to “stop telling us about this,” referring to the outside lawyer representing the city.
Blackshire’s estate filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas in 2019, naming the city as well as Charles Starks – the officer who killed Blackshire and then was fired, reinstated, and ultimately resigned – and Michael Simpson, a police officer who was the first to arrive at the scene.
The central question of the conflict is whether the city can settle the settlement and thus end the legal dispute without authorization from the board of directors. The argument is based on the amount the city would pay to the Blackshire estate.
The General Counsel of the Arkansas Municipal League, which represents the city along with attorneys from two law firms, and the Little Rock Communications Office have suggested it.
The league’s general counsel, John Wilkerson, has cited the fact that the city would pay $ 49,500 under the proposed agreement – a figure below the $ 50,000 threshold that officials say can be approved by the city manager and not any Requires formal board approval.
According to the draft contract, the Municipal League would pay $ 250,500 to the property.
In addition, the city and the police would have to take further measures according to the comparison, as shown by police recruits for at least 10 years.
Starks is represented in the litigation by attorney Robert Newcomb, who said a separate settlement was reached with his client.
In his correspondence on the matter, Carpenter has argued that the agreement needs to be reviewed prior to final approval by the board as the amount of money to be approved by the city administrator was not the subject of a competitive offer.
In addition, Carpenter has raised concerns about the non-monetary provisions in the settlement, which would, among other things, require additional police training, and described them as political matters under the oversight of the committee.
Carpenter’s office closed the case as the city’s attorney in August 2020, according to court records, and the lawsuit was turned over to the Municipal League police chiefs amid lawsuits filed by two assistants against the police chief and city police chief.
In a letter to U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. filed on Wednesday, the outside attorneys representing the city said they believed the Settlement Agreement and its non-monetary provisions would get Little Rock’s final approval have received.
“The city government has consistently approved settlement agreements that have Little Rock City-attributable funds less than $ 50,000,” they wrote.
In a ruling later that day, Marshall wrote, “The court will take no action until the parties have reached a settlement and the probate court has approved the schedule that resets unexpired deadlines and restores the trial date in April 2022.”
He set November 12th as the due date for a joint report on the settlement.
At the request of Mayor Frank Scott Jr. during Wednesday’s meeting, City Manager Bruce Moore – who, according to a notice sent to city officials last week, had recently returned to the office after traveling overseas between October 7 and 12, described – the process used to settle a dispute during his tenure.
Moore said the officials are working closely with the prosecutor, and if the sides come close to reaching an agreement, the city prosecutor will tell the board which direction they’re going. If objections are raised, officers return to the table, Moore said.
Moore described the current situation as unique in that the Municipal League and outside attorneys represent Little Rock as opposed to the city attorney.
Scott asked Moore to meet the $ 50,000 limit, and Moore said his office worked with an understanding that the city manager had the authority to make payments of no more than $ 50,000.
He said, “Often times, cases get settled for much less, whether it’s $ 33,000 or $ 10,000.” And Moore again emphasized the uniqueness of the situation.
“I basically let two or three legal experts guide me,” he said.
Ward 5 Vice Mayor Lance Hines spoke out against the settlement, arguing that “the facts are that this board of directors has never been consulted on this settlement”.
Urged again by Scott, Moore said he would turn to Carpenter, but expressed his view that there had never been an official vote of the board of directors to resolve a particular lawsuit.
Ward 6 City Manager Doris Wright said that during her tenure in the past, the prosecutor has contacted board members to let them know if an agreement is reached.
“He’s the town attorney, not whoever these Municipal League people are,” Wright said. “He is and so I believe that any communication or advice this board receives must come from him.”
She continued, “Although … we did not vote on settlements that were under $ 50,000, we were made aware and we were not made aware. And I think that could be an objection. “
Moments later, Moore Carpenter transferred.
“Apparently there was a decision to stop telling us about it,” said Carpenter.
He shared how the litigation started when his office was handling it, but was later turned over to the community league because of a litigation.
Carpenter went on to describe how a notification was received late last year that mediation would take place to settle the case.
He said the issue had been discussed with league and city staff, but officials failed to mediate “because the amount requested has increased significantly,” he said. Carpenter said it had been agreed that information would be shared with his office.
Carpenter said he was recently told that Starks would not pay any damages as part of the settlement, while the city would pay $ 500,000.
“That bothered me,” said Carpenter. “The issue was brought up again and I was assured that I would be kept informed. And that was not done.”
He said it was not true that the board of directors was not contacted about settlements less than $ 50,000.
Carpenter referred to a previous case involving three separate lawsuits filed after three police recruits were fired. In this case, he said that the board members had been informed of the settlement amount.
Carpenter said he was unaware of a case in the past 30 years where a death was caused by the use of lethal force by an officer and the board was excluded from the discussion.
City manager Joan Adcock said that in her 29 years on the board, Carpenter has likely called officials and told them about the plan in any case. Adcock said she was always told she could appeal if she wanted.
City Director BJ Wyrick of Ward 7 asked for clarification as to whether the City Manager is actually authorized to spend less than $ 50,000 without a competitive offer.
Moore said he always assumed his office had that spending power. Regarding Carpenter’s objection, Moore said that last week he saw for the first time in writing that the agency was only concerned with competing bids.
Shortly thereafter, during the meeting, Scott suggested that Wyrick agree that clarification of the city administrator’s spending authority was “urgently needed”.
Dean Kumpuris, the city’s general manager, echoed Adcock’s comments on board members consulting with the city attorney. Carpenter gave the board members the opportunity to object, in which case the matter would have to be discussed in the board, suggested Kumpuris.
“So I really don’t care about the $ 50,000 limit. The question is, are we in charge? ”Asked Kumpuris. “And if we’re not in charge, we might as well go home.”
He described Carpenter as their channel for litigation, regardless of his opposition status to the Municipal League, “and that channel was broken,” Kumpuris said. “So, I don’t know how that will be resolved or if the deal is really in effect if this board says it is not or if the board says it needs to be discussed.”
At the meeting, Scott said the Municipal League would speak to the board next week.
The purpose of Wednesday’s meeting was to give board members the opportunity to vote on a replacement for the late Ward 1 City Director Erma Hendrix.
After discussing the settlement dispute, the board members met in a closed session and returned to appoint Virgil L. Miller Jr., a local banker, to the vacated seat.