By Tammy Curtis, Publisher

It is the most wonderful time of the year… for news media at least. The time of year where journalists and editors across the nation are forced to cast attention away from the black and white ink of the daily grind and put on their proverbial black and white referee uniforms. It is the time we are forced to don them, hoping we don’t have to come out swinging, but fully capable of doing so if need be. We sure hate to do it and every year hope that the local political season doesn’t mimic the national stage with blows being dealt going lower and lower, oftentimes with utter disregard to the very laws many of our elected officials have been sworn to protect. This year did not disappoint. Wait, yes it did… GREATLY.
We made it through what are typically the two county races that most often see more mud slinging than four by fours on a mud course. The judge and sheriff’s race came out “seemingly” cleaner than ever. Then sneaking up from behind was a shocker (well it shouldn’t have been) Mud and dirty politics reared their heads quickly in a city race, of all things.
Last week, this paper was sent what we expected to be the typical letter that Cherokee Village’s mayor Russell Stokes sends to be published monthly on our opinion page. (As it was published in another local newspaper). This opinion page article is a place graciously given as a space for him to publish a monthly letter to the people he represents informing them of goings on in the city.
Only this time, Mr. Stokes I am not going to attempt to hide who I am speaking about, as you did in your piece. Stokes felt it was his duty as mayor of all of Cherokee Village to legislate for his favorite candidate by way of this free and public column. Yes, that is right… against the very election law he is bound by. Stokes used his office to ATTEMPT to pass his opinion of who he felt should be elected on via his free column. What does this say to anyone seeking public office? It is okay to use your perceived power to legislate votes would be a good guess. Mr. Mayor, I am highly offended at your blatant attempt to utilize my newspaper to break the law you are bound by, have previously broken as an elected official and all of your constituents should as well. It should make every voter rethink what direction they would like to see their city strive for in the future. They may want to question if it is in the same direction as the past or elsewhere.
Make no mistakes. Stokes knows better. His comments were not an honest mistake. This was not the first time Stokes has been cited for ethical violations related to his office. During his 2018 campaign, when asked to submit emails as part of a FOIA request, Stokes responded in a blatant admission to his violation of the law. Ignorance of the law is not a defense Mr. Stokes. The mayor attends enough Municipal League training to know the law. If he doesn’t then he has no business being in any kind of elected office.
In an Oct. 3, 2018 response to the FOIA Stokes said, “It has been the long standing practice that emails are deleted at the end of the day,” blatantly against Arkansas Code § 25-19-103 which states “emails are official records and must be retained according to the state and federal retention schedules.” In the case of counties and cities, that is typically six years… not hours.
Stokes also sent out campaign advertisements from his city computer during normal city working hours during his 2018 campaign, again against Arkansas election law. He also allowed city employees to carry his campaign signs out of city hall, used the city website and social media to advertise and promote his campaign, used city equipment for campaign purposes, as well as confronting city employees about who they planned to support in the mayoral race.
During Stokes 2018 campaign a formal complaint was lodged and probable cause was found of ethics related offenses by his office. On May 17, 2019 by a unanimous vote, the Arkansas Ethics Commission agreed with the claim of an ethics violation against the mayor for a violation of Ark. Code Ann. § 7-1-103(a)(3)(A) It stated, “In your capacity as Mayor of Cherokee Village, in connection with having supporters pick up campaign signs from you at Cherokee Village City Hall and in connection with using the City’s computer and email system to send content changes in a campaign ad to the local newspaper.”
Stokes was assessed a $100 fine (don’t laugh) and willingly signed an Offer of Settlement in the case admitting to breaking the campaign laws. His memory must have left him in the last few years. While we always appreciate his advertising support in the past, it in no way equates to a free pass to utilize any space in this newspaper for illegal activities.
If these weren’t enough, another candidate running for the office of mayor, who Stokes attempts to allude to in his article by virtue of not using names, is easily understood to who each are in the three descriptions. His “column” clearly represents that Rob Smith is the candidate for which Stokes is publicly advocating as he is the only one to hold a council position.
Smith must have taken Stokes’ lead on the illegal campaign activities, as he had multiple persons visualize his campaign material within the City of Cherokee Village Welcome Center. Reports have been made to this news agency that he has also been reported to the Ethics Commission for his alleged illegal campaign activities. Smith has also utilized what appears to be the city logo for his campaign to create a false sense that he is endorsed by the city, as well as having a complaint filed against him at the Cherokee Village Police Department for removing another party’s political signs.
Smith, who has been on the city council for many years, was one of the most vocal to speak out against the City taking a “free handout” from SID during the recent lawsuit. This newspaper quoted him at the Aug. 27, 2021 city council meeting, when Smith, as a sitting councilman said, “We have had years to look at other streams of income and other things that we could do to bring in tax revenue to the city and we didn’t. We sat there and we collected a handout from SID. We didn’t do anything else to shore up the city to make it anything else than what it was, so here we are.” Yet somehow he too forgot that statement and has spoken about the city working with the SID, something the lawsuit proved was illegal in regard to finance options for the city.. Those are just a few of the facts Stokes obviously forgot to mention when speaking of his favored candidate.
Do the other candidates get to utilize these city owned items to promote their campaigns? I think not. Instead candidate Steven Rose gets to utilize some city paper in the form of citations from Planning and Zoning at his home that he never received before running for the office.
But make no mistakes, the city isn’t where it stopped, despite the appearance of a clean campaign. Another candidate, who although running for County Judge, may not have the blatant violations as Stokes, has refused to comply with state Freedom of Information Act Laws, including in one of the complaints filed with him against Stokes. After the filer, first complied with Counts request to provide him “probable cause” of the violation.
The alleged election crimes committed by Stokes, could have been prosecuted as a Class A Misdemeanor, and prevented Stokes from holding any political office within the state. But, Counts opted to not send the violation for prosecution, the same as he opted not to send former female jail administrator Serena Martin, who he hired with no experience for possible prosecution of alleged sexually related crimes while employed by Sharp County.
Other employees of both the county and sheriff’s department, allegedly learned Martin had an ongoing and well known among other employees and her husband, intimate affair with an inmate.
Counts, however, previously opted to terminate a male jailer (not jail administrator) and have him charged with a felony sexual offense for having sex with a female inmate. Yet, Counts, who is seeking the position of County Judge, did not terminate a third female jailer for the same reason years earlier…despite having been asked by a former jail administrator whether or not the county should seek an investigation by the Arkansas State Police in the case. Counts declined.
In fact, Counts declined to request any outside investigations of crimes or a possible or probable sexual nature in his jail where female jailers were concerned.
The only reason the Arkansas State Police is currently investigating the Martin case is because this news agency was made aware of the alleged crime as well as video evidence by four people who had direct knowledge of the incidents between Martin and the inmate. Those subjects said they felt they could not report the incidents to the sheriff because he hired her and that her husband was his pastor and they felt he would not investigate or have the alleged crimes investigated. This in itself, could have constituted malfeasance of office- an unlawful act committed willfully by an elective public officer in his or her capacity as an elected official against Counts.
This news agency turned the information over to Prosecuting Attorney Ryan Cooper last summer. Cooper then turned the investigation over to the Arkansas State police and assigned a special prosecutor to the case. It is still pending nearly a year and a half later.
This news agency has been in contact with Cooper who said he will not be made aware of the findings as well as the Arkansas State Police Investigator Mike McNeill, who said he was having trouble getting the former inmate to cooperate with the investigation (IMAGINE THAT), which is currently still being investigated as a sexual assault.
So, as we go into the voting booths, it is the media’s job as a public watchdog… not the mayor of Cherokee Village, to inform our readers of not only present issues, but ones in the past. It is our job to best arm our voters with the facts they can best utilize to make an educated choice on who they will choose to represent them. You have but one vote, use it wisely, and if in doubt, by all means ask questions and send FOIA requests. We likely have the information already on hand.
“The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior” as Mark Twain/Albert Ellis/Walter Michel or B.F. Skinner said. Shame on you elected officials for not upholding the laws by which your offices are bound.