Community appealed petition’s rejection last year, then watched 2 judges recuse
Posted: April 18, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.
Having languished in circuit court limbo for more than a year, the appeal case of Little Italy’s incorporation is still waiting for its day in court.
Last spring, Little Italy residents appealed a decision by Pulaski County Judge Barry Hyde denying their petition to incorporate the roughly 380-person community into a city.
In March 2016, petitioners’ attorneys filed an appeal in Little Rock asking a circuit judge to reverse Hyde’s decision. Since then, the case has been passed from judge to judge in the 17-division circuit court covering Pulaski and Perry counties in a series of recusals that have frustrated the plaintiffs.
“We’re disappointed by the multiple recusals from our elected judges. We eagerly await the opportunity to present our case, which has languished in the court system for more than a year now,” said Kristy Eanes, a Little Italy resident spearheading the incorporation effort. “Despite these delays, we’re optimistic about the future of our historic 101-year-old community and hope it will soon take its place as Arkansas’ 502nd municipality.”
For roughly eight months the case sat in the circuit court before Circuit Judge Mary McGowan issued her order of recusal last December, saying she “has a former in-law family relationship with one of the parties in this case.”
The case was then passed to Circuit Judge Alice Gray. On March 30, Gray filed a recusal order that she later realized was fraught with errors. She asked the clerk’s office to withdraw the recusal filing, but not before the clerk’s computer system had already randomly reassigned the case to Circuit Judge Mackie Pierce.
At Gray’s request, the clerk’s office deleted her faulty recusal order, then refiled a corrected order eight days later on April 7. Gray would not state her reason for recusal, although she said it had nothing to do with the nature or subject of the case.
The refiled recusal order prompted the circuit clerk to randomly reassign the case to its fourth arena, giving it to Circuit Judge Chris Piazza. After briefly reviewing the case earlier this month, Piazza said he sees no reason to recuse.
“This was all done by computer as it was designed to do. We’re not trying to get Judge Piazza to hear the Little Italy case,” said Jason Kennedy, assistant chief deputy of the clerk’s office.
Hyde rejected the residents’ bid for incorporation after hearing testimony from Eanes and Chris Dorer, co-chairmen of the Little Italy Incorporation Task Force, in December 2015 and January 2016 after the submission of a petition signed by 220 qualified voters nearly two years ago.
In that testimony Eanes — who said she is the great-granddaughter of the community’s founder — and Dorer said they wanted to commemorate the community’s century of existence by having Little Italy become an official town.
They also wanted to improve local services such as road maintenance and be able to better represent the community among inter-governmental agencies like Metroplan, the long-range transportation planning agency for central Arkansas.
Hyde’s judgment, issued in February 2016, found that incorporation “is not right and proper according to Arkansas law.”
Hyde found the proposed 8.8-square-mile area to be unreasonably large for a population of 380. The area is more than twice the size of Mayflower, which has a population of about 2,300. Hyde also said Little Italy lacked the “necessary unit of a single place,” and he found the proposed budget to be “inadequate to maintain services for the town’s inhabitants.”
For instance, Hyde determined the budget could not adequately fund continued maintenance of the 5.36 miles of county roads in the proposed city limits.
Pulaski County Attorney Adam Fogleman said the county’s decision is backed up by “a long history of case law regarding incorporation from the Arkansas Supreme Court.”
Hyde’s judgment cites the Arkansas Supreme Court case Clark v. Holt, in which the high court determined that the idea behind municipal incorporation “is that of oneness, community, locality, vicinity … a body of people collected or gathered together in one mass, not separated into distinct masses.”
Hyde’s ruling determined that geographic separations among several clusters of inhabitants in the Little Italy area create various identities and histories.
County attorneys are now waiting on motions for dismissal to be heard by a circuit judge. The plaintiffs’ response asks that the motion be denied on the grounds that the appeal has complied with all court rules and procedures.
Metro on 04/18/2017