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Editor’s action causes court meeting to turn ugly




A meeting of the Letcher County Fiscal Court took an ugly turn this week after a newspaper editor was given the floor to deliver a politically-motivated attack against one of the county’s five magistrates.

Tina Whitaker, editor of the Cromona-based Letcher County News-Press, took the unusual step for an editor or reporter on Monday night of interjecting herself into the May meeting of the Letcher County Fiscal Court to make a pointed criticism of District Five Magistrate Wayne Fleming.

Whitaker had signed her name to the list of citizens asking to speak at the meeting, an indication that her action had been planned even though she appeared to be in the audience to cover the meeting for her newspaper.

Brandishing what she called a “flier,” a political ad had been distributed throughout District Five on behalf of a candidate Fleming was supporting for the state senate, Whitaker said that since some of her family members lived in Fleming’s district she wanted to ask him a question about it and read from the text.

“Don’t be fooled by lies and half truths from Johnny Ray Turner and court officials,” Whitaker read. “Are they (referring to members of the fiscal court) these court officers?”

“If they’re here, they know who they are,” replied Fleming.

At that point, District Two Magistrate Archie Banks, who sat beside Fleming at the court table, said “the only liar here is sitting right beside me.”

“Archie, do you want to go outside and call me a liar?” asked Fleming.

Banks did not reply and Fleming then said, “I stand behind what I said.”

Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues, located at the University of Kentucky, said it is important not to blur the line in public between a journalist and member of the public. However, as a member of the public, anyone has a right to question an elected official, Cross said.

“(As a journalist) you need to avoid looking like you are carrying water for any particular person, party, or faction,” said Cross. “Otherwise you run the risk of looking like you support Fleming’s factional enemies.”

While Whitaker or any other citizen has the right to question a member of the court, by asking Fleming a potentially inflammatory question in front of the other court members, it put him in an uncomfortable and potentially adversarial position. Whitaker has also written several articles in recent editions of her paper accusing Fleming of collusion with 94th District State Representative Leslie Combs in order to get more coal severance tax funds for Fleming’s district at the expense of the rest of the county.

Fleming openly supported Turner’s opponent, Shane Hamilton, in their race for the senate seat in the 36th District.

In other business, the court heard a report from Greg Pridemore, director of the Letcher County Water and Sewer District, on ongoing water projects and those in various stages of planning. Pridemore told the court that projects in Craft’s Colly and Little Cowan are both under construction and have some pipe in the ground. He said a pumping station will soon be placed in Little Cowan and the district opened bids on Phase 3 of the Craft’s Colly project He said he had been surprised at how low the bids were but after checking references he felt a good deal better about it. Pridemore said he expects construction on Phase 3 to begin sometime in July after the legally mandated 90-day waiting period from bid opening.

Pridemore also said bids for lines in Smoot Creek will be opened in the next two weeks and he is looking at a construction start there in August or September. The $3.4 million Thornton project is set for design with funds in the budget. It will run from Mayking Mall to Martha Jane Potter Elementary School and US 119 and cover 700 homes. The first phase of the Thornton Project will be bid this fall. Other projects in design include Cumberland River, Bull Creek, Carcassonne, Elk Creek, the Knott County Connection, Highway 160 at Premium, Millstone, and the Payne Gap -119 through to Mayking project.

In response to a complaint from Gary Rogers of Letcher Fire and Rescue, the court also voted to place 911, first responder, and county radio service up for bid. The service was awarded to former District Four Magistrate Randall Caudill on an emergency basis due to the death of the original contractor. However, in response to a question from Magistrate Fleming, County Attorney Harold Bolling told the court that the emergency nature of the contract had long passed and it is time to place the service for bid.

The court also heard an update on a youth center for McRoberts from Jim Scott. Scott told the court that McRoberts had been awarded a $50,000 grant from Toyota for the center with the provision that a computer room be built there as well. Scott said the center is being renovated by citizens and that a project cost estimate by the original architect of $200,000 has been reduced to around $60,000 due to community involvement.

Scott told the court that renovations will include a security system and a new roof. He said new air-conditioning units have already been placed. He said access to the building will be tightly controlled with ID cards issued by Letcher County Sheriff Danny Webb only to McRoberts youth. Scott said other young people can come in only as a guest of someone with an ID. He also said that Toyota had told him it sees this as a first step to providing other funding for needed projects in Letcher County with the McRoberts group serving as control for which projects get funded.

“Toyota came to us,” said Scott. “They want to use this as a springboard for the county. It will run through us.”

Scott asked the court for approximately $10,000 to cover reconstruction costs, but Judge Ward told him that at this point, money is very tight. Ward said that after the county begins operating under its Fiscal Year 2008-2009 budget, they would be willing to help but at this time there is just no money. Scott told the court that at present he is serving as negotiator and project manager and that Judge Ward’s wife Joan has offered to teach computer skills to young people at the center. Scott also told the court there will be a service at the McRoberts Memorial site on Monday May 26 at 1 p.m.

Other court business included:

. The court voted unanimously to accept excess fees from County Court Clerk Winston Meade in the amount of $3,674. Added to other excess fees already presented of $100,0000, plus the cost of running the clerk’s office as a selfsustaining unit and paying their own Social Security, retirement, health care, and other costs, this brings the excess fees from the County Court Clerk’s office to a total of $208,508.74.

. The court voted to grant Sapphire Coal a waiver to operate within 100 feet of a county road. The waiver had originally been tabled at a special meeting but Magistrate Banks told the court that Sapphire had satisfied his objections.

. County Attorney Bolling conducted the first treading of a Speed Limit Ordinance setting the speed limit on Grandview Road at 10 miles per hour.

. The court heard the second reading of the Hazardous Material Cost Recovery ordinance and approved it unanimously.

. The court voted unanimously to sign onto a request from the Pike County Mountain Water District for multi-county severance tax funds in the amount of $1 million for a water tank to be located at the Regional Gateway Industrial Park in Jenkins.

. The court approved the first reading of the county’s 2008- 2009 budgets for just over $7,648,000. Judge Ward told the court there is no wiggle room in this budget due to a shortfall in coal severance tax funding which will primarily affect the LGEA fund.

. In response to a request from Deputy Court Clerk Sue Dunn, Finance Officer Doris Jean Frazier told the court she cannot go ahead and cut checks to pay election workers until the day is completed and she receives verification of who worked. Judge Ward said the court will have a special called meeting to approve the checks.

. Judge Ward told court members that the family of the late Ernest Cook has asked permission to build a marble and stone sign commemorating Cook at the Ernest Cook Memorial Park. The court approved the request unanimously.

In reports from county departments:

. County Road Department workers graded and graveled roads throughout the county and cut brush and grass at various sites. They also repaired culverts, laid cold patch in potholes, cut trees out of roads, cleaned out the county garage, and worked on bridges throughout the county.

. Parks and Recreation Director Derek Barto reported that work has begun on the Thornton Park and that a bid was accepted for new equipment for the Kiddy Park at Jenkins. Barto also reported that Parks and Recreation will begin showing films on the outdoor movie theater system. The Mountain Heritage Festival Committee will sponsor a showing of “Grease” at its stage in Whitesburg June 7, and a film will be shown in Jenkins on Friday June 20.

. Senior Citizens Director Trenda Kincer reported serving over 10,000 meals in March, 4,864 congregate, 5,725 home delivery, and 197 Homecare. Seniors took their annual trip to Camp Nathaniel and the Colson and Boonefork centers went to Inez to see Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate. The Colson center has a big cookout scheduled for May 30. Debbie Isaac is the new manager of the Colson Center.

. Letcher County Economic Development Director Joe DePriest reported attending meetings with the Letcher County Prison Project Committee, the Planning Commission, the Airport Authority, and the Chamber of Commerce. He also met with Equitable Resources, Maggard Sales, Drew Dennis of the Education Cabinet, the Advance Call Center, and Summit Engineering.


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