After nearly five hours, Quorum Court justices upheld County Judge Dale James in his terminating the employment of Craig Clute at a Monday night, March 11, grievance hearing.
Clute had been a county employee for 22 years at the time of his February termination. He had been the road crew supervisor through 2018, then moved to being the quarry supervisor when James took office in 2019.
Clute was represented by attorney Ralph Blagg, while the county was represented by 20th District Prosecuting Attorney Carol Crews. James, due to his being a witness in the proceedings, was not able to act as Judge. That assignment was made to Justice Dell Holt. Other Justices attended, asking questions throughout the proceedings.
At issue was if James had violated the law in terminating Clute.
Blagg, in presenting Clute’s case, said the firing had been political due to Clute supporting then Van Buren County Judge Roger Hooper in his reelection campaign. Blagg said Clute had been “reassigned” after James took office, with the role of road crew supervisor then being given to a “political supporter” of James’. Further, Blagg said in his opening remarks, that the drug test, cited in Clute’s firing, violated the employee handbook.
The Van Buren County Employee handbook was an ongoing topic during the hearing, including if any employees had received the handbook. This brought a rise out of Holt who headed the committee which produced the most recent, 2018, version of the handbook, who said all employees had received, and signed for, a copy.
The handbook was also cited by Crews, referring to its rules regarding the use of county vehicles and equipment for personal use. Clute, as a supervisor, had used a company truck to take an employee to a doctor’s appointment. Both he and the employee, Damien Weaver, went to the appointment without clocking out, being one of the reasons cited by James for the termination.
During the hearing Weaver said he had gotten permission to go to the doctor by road supervisor Randy Ward as he and Clute were working on a road project. He told the hearing that he was told he did not have to clock out and the pair could use a county truck to travel to the appointment.
Weaver broke his thumb and needed Clute’s assistance at the doctor, Justices were told.
Ward, called as a witness by Crews, said this was not the case. He had agreed that the pair could go to the doctor, but at no time gave them permission to do so without clocking out, nor were they allowed to use a county truck for personal transportation.
Clute, as a supervisor, doing personal business while on the clock, and using a county truck to do so, was not just theft of time and theft of property, but insolence and creating a toxic workplace, James said. It was pointed out that James, just after being sworn in as Judge, held a Jan. 2 meeting for all employees where he outlined the importance of not using county equipment for personal use and the importance of clocking out before doing any personal business.
The drug test and its role in Clute’s termination was discussed at length during the hearing.
On Jan. 30 James had all employees go to the sheriff’s office for a drug test. There they were given an on-site test. Clute failed the initial test, showing positive for THC, the hearing was told. Additional test kits were purchased at Walmart, and Clute was tested two more times. The second time there was a “faint trace” on the test swab, which included some of the first test’s sample, and the third was clean, the hearing was told.
Confusion here came from, as Blagg pointed out, the employee handbook required drug testing to meet DOT requirements, which the sheriff’s department test type did not meet.
The hearing was told Clute was suspended with pay after the failed test, then sent to a local doctor’s office for a lab test. This test returned “clean.”
Clute’s employment was terminated shortly thereafter.
James said the termination was a difficult decision and would make operations more difficult as it meant losing an experienced employee, but “it was the right thing to do.” James also said politics had nothing to do with it and that, as he had announced at the Jan. 2 meeting, everything was starting “with a clean slate.”
Crews, in both opening and closing statements, pointed out that the county agreed to not include any reference to failing a drug test in the letter citing reasons for termination given to Clute. She also, in both statements, pointed out that Arkansas was an at-will state, meaning ultimately that employment could be terminated at any time. This was also, she pointed out during testimony, cited in the employee handbook.
Holt, at the four hour and 45 minute mark, brought the matter up to vote with a roll call of Justices, all of whom upheld James’s decision. A quorum supporting James had been reached when the final vote came to Justice Ester Bass. Bass, holding up the employee handbook, said “We’re overlooking a lot of stuff here,” citing Clute’s 22 years with the county, then voted against the firing decision.
A quorum having been reached, the decision supporting James’ actions carried.