Saying that he failed to prove his case, a special judge on Thursday threw out a lawsuit filed by Jefferson County Circuit Clerk Lafayette Woods Sr., who claimed that the ability of his office to do its job was compromised when County Judge Gerald Robinson cut the office budget and eliminated three positions.
Woods contended that when the idea of reducing the county workforce was first discussed, each county official was asked to eliminate one position. But Woods said that when the Jefferson County Quorum Court voted on an amended 2019 budget, that budget called for a reduction of $76,000 in his budget, which amounted to salaries and benefits for three employees.
Retired Circuit Judge David Laser, who was assigned the case when all the judges in the county recused, said that while going from losing one person in the clerk’s office to losing three sounded unreasonable, the losses by other elected officials was greater.
Laser cited County Treasurer Vonysha Goodwin, whose three-person office was reduced to two, as an example.
Woods said he had been circuit clerk for 10 years, and after the 2019 budget was adopted, Robinson, who was sworn-in as county judge on Jan. 1, asked each elected official to cut one position in their office because of declining revenue.
“I had no problem with one, but there were three positions eliminated,” Woods said, adding that he was out of town when the Quorum Court met to discuss the revised budget or he would have been there to protest the cuts. He also said that he tried to set up a meeting with Robinson to discuss the cuts but kept getting put off.
When he testified, Robinson said that when Woods contacted him, he had other commitments and tried to reschedule a meeting but Woods didn’t show up.
He also said that it was true that he had asked each elected official to cut one position, but in doing research with the county clerk, who is responsible for the payroll, he discovered that Woods’ office had two more deputy clerks than were authorized by the budget.
Robinson said the clerk’s office was over its payroll budget by more than $34,000.
Woods said that one of the clerks worked in juvenile court, while the second was assigned to handle civil cases in the Second Division. With that clerk gone, Chief Deputy Clerk Flora Bishop had to take over the duties. The third position was vacant.
When she testified, Bishop said the clerks were “falling behind. We’re doing the best we can.”
She also said that there had been no complaints from attorneys or members of the public that she was aware of about the work of the office, and she said clerks in the office work a 37.5-hour workweek. She also said Woods was not in the office every day but may come in “three or four times a week, and not stay all day.”
Benton attorney Luther Sutter, who represented Woods, called most every member of the Quorum Court and asked them if they had any reason to doubt Woods’ testimony that he was not able to get all his work done since some of his employees had been eliminated.
Nearly all of them admitted that they really didn’t know exactly what the Circuit Clerk’s Office did and could not dispute what he said.
One member of the county’s legislative body, Justice of the Peace Delton Wright, said he had known Woods for 30 years, and when Robinson has an idea, he talks to only a few members of the Quorum Court, specifically justices Ted Harden, Patricia Royal Johnson and Jimmy Fisher.
“This judge is not humble,” Wright said. “He wants to be in control.”
Wright went on to say that he thought those meetings were in secret and said there was one instance when Robinson “whispered in my ear and said he was going to bring me down.”
When he testified, Harden denied any secret meetings but did say he had talked to Woods about the reductions. He said he told Woods that he would look at the issue later if the reductions affected the way Woods’ office functioned. Harden is chairman of the Budget and Finance Committee, which is made up of all 13 members of the Quorum Court.
Johnson and Fisher also denied any knowledge of secret meetings with Robinson.
After the decision, Robinson said he did what he felt he needed to do for the county.
“Looking at the county’s financial situation overall, I knew we had to make a reduction. Our workforce was greater than it was 20 years ago when we had more taxes. It was common sense that we had to do this.”