September 21, 2016 Edition

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Judge's death shocks county,
creates unique vacancy

County Judge Dale Freeman, who was seriously injured in an Aug. 10 automobile accident, died on Saturday in Little Rock where he was a patient at Baptist Health Hospital.

Gretchen Hunt

County Judge Dale Freeman, who has been recovering from injuries sustained in a one-vehicle accident on Aug. 10 near Cabot, died unexpectedly on Saturday at Baptist Health Hospital in Little Rock.

Freeman, who had been making considerable strides in his recovery, passed away 37 days after the accident, days for which his family was thankful.

He and his wife Mary, have three daughters, Tonya Brand of Walnut Ridge, Candi Yarbro of Portia and Michelle Boots of Jonesboro, and a son Jeff Reese of Powhatan, as well as four grandchildren.

In a Facebook post, Brand said the past few weeks have been filled with laughter and tears, and the family is thankful for the support from the community.

"Thank you all for your thoughts, prayers, cards, flowers, Facebook messages, texts and visits," she said. "Please continue to pray for our family in the upcoming days."

Prior to being elected county judge in 2010, Freeman served as mayor of Portia for many years. He retired from Burlington Northern Railroad after 36 years of service.

Freeman, who won the Democratic primary in March, did not have a Republican opponent, and was slated to begin his fourth term as judge in January.

Scott Perkins, communications director with the Arkansas Association of Counties, expressed condolences on behalf of the organization.

"AAC's thoughts and prayers are with the county family, Judge Freeman's family and friends and certainly the county as a whole during this tragedy," Perkins said.

Walnut Ridge Mayor Charles Snapp said he has learned a lot from Freeman as they worked together over the past few years.

"He came across extremely brash and didn't like compromise, but he was always willing to compromise if it benefitted Lawrence County," Snapp said. "It didn't matter where it was in the county, if I could show him how it would benefit the county, he was on board.

"Dale was a key player for the progress we are seeing in Walnut Ridge and the rest of Lawrence County. He truly loved Lawrence County and the people of Lawrence County."

Vacancy in
raises questions

Perkins said Arkansas Code § 14-14-1310 sets the procedure on filling a vacancy in the case of a county official.

The law states that the county quorum court fills county elected official positions, while the governor fills vacancies in elective township offices, including justice of the peace offices.

Ann Pulliam, who has been acting in the judge's behalf during his recovery, will continue to do so until an appointment is made.

Justice of the Peace Lloyd Clark said he anticipates an interim judge will be appointed to complete the remainder of the current term but is uncertain what the protocol will be for the upcoming term.

Alex Latham, who is serving as chair of the Quorum Court as appointed by the justices, said the justices are still waiting on clarification on how to move forward regarding the term that Freeman will be on the ballot for in November.

"We haven't been able to get real good direction on what can happen," he said. "We want to do what is right within the scope of the law. It's just a matter of what direction we are supposed to take at this point."

According to Perkins, the individual appointed to complete the remainder of the current term would holdover and fill the 2017-18 term, as well, since Freeman would automatically be elected on the November ballot.

However, Arkansas Code § 7-7-104 allows a party to fill a vacancy in nomination up to 47 days prior to the General Election, which County Clerk Tina Stowers said would be this coming Thursday. If the Democratic Party of Lawrence County successfully files a certificate of nomination by the cutoff, votes cast for Freeman in the election would be counted for the party's nominee.

The Democratic Central Committee is scheduled to meet Thursday night at 6:30 at the Lawrence County Courthouse.

The Quorum Court will meet Tuesday night at 5:30 to declare a vacancy and is expected to pass a resolution at that time filling the judge position for the remainder of the year.

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