Share This Article
Baxter County Circuit Judge Johnnie A. Copeland has recused herself from the ongoing legal case between Norfork Public School Board President Levi Woods and Baxter County Clerk Canda Reese.
Woods filed a petition of writ with the Baxter County Circuit Court on Dec. 29 after Reese disqualified Woods from this year’s school board election in Norfork for Position 2. Woods appears to have mistakenly filed for Position 1 when submitting his paperwork before last year’s filing deadline.
Judge Copeland’s recusal does not come as a surprise as Reese also serves as the clerk for the Baxter County Circuit Court.
“Now on this 19th day of January 2024, in the best interest of the administration of justice, the undersigned hereby recuses herself from proceedings, trial, and all ancillary matters in the above captioned case,” wrote Copeland in an Order of Recusal that was released yesterday morning.
In his petition to the court, Woods alleges that in the Summer of 2023, “confusion and discrepancies” over whether Position 1 or Position 2 would be up for election in March 2024.
In the lead-up to filing, Woods alleges that Norfork School District Superintendent Chip Layne held a phone call with him to discuss the five position numbers and which positions were up for re-election.
Superintendent Layne alleges to have received a phone call from a deputy clerk within the Baxter County Clerk’s Office inquiring which position was up for re-election. Woods was identified as that candidate.
Layne also alleges that he was advised by a deputy clerk that a new order for school board positions would occur and that Woods would now be in Position 1.
Layne signed an affidavit detailing his alleged conversation with the Clerk’s Office. That affidavit was filed alongside the petition.
Under state law, school board positions can only be changed following the passing of a resolution by the school board itself. Following the passing of the resolution, the Baxter County Election Commission would have to hold its own vote to approve the position changes.
A look at the Norfork Public Schools’ Board of Education meeting minutes for every month in 2023 shows that no resolution was ever passed to legally change the positions of its board members within the district. No vote to approve the changing of the positions was ever held by the Baxter County Election Commission.
In multiple interviews with the Observer and in a legal filing of her own, Baxter County Clerk Canda Reese asserted that the alleged conversation between Layne and the deputy clerk never occurred.
Baxter County Deputy Clerk Lindsay Roberts, who also serves as the Election Coordinator for the Baxter County Election Commission, denied ever discussing changing board positions with Superintendent Layne.
Both Layne and Woods refused to say which deputy clerk within the Baxter County Clerk’s Office told them of the decision to change positions when asked by the Observer.
A FOIA request for communications between Layne and the Clerk’s Office only shows a brief email exchange between Roberts and Layne over Woods running for re-election.
Following the alleged conversation about changing positions, Woods said he visited the Baxter County Courthouse on Nov. 13 to file his required petition and supporting documents for his bid for re-election.
His election filing shows that he filed for Position 1 on the Norfork Public School Board.
During the visit to file, Woods claims that he sat down with two staff members from the Clerk’s Office to go over his paperwork. After 10 minutes of going through the documents, those staff members confirmed that he was “good to go.”
A look at his filing documents shows that Baxter County Election Coordinator Lindsay Roberts notarized his filing on Nov. 13.
Woods alleges that he then asked about his position number one final time before leaving. He claims both staff members confirmed the number to him. Woods was then notified a week later that he was not eligible for this year’s election.
Under Ark. Code Ann. 6-114-111(e)(2)(a) “the county clerk shall not accept a candidate’s petition until the county clerk has verified that: the position on the board of directors that the candidate has indicated on the petition is scheduled to be filled during the current election.”
Woods argues that by signing off on his election filing during his Nov. 13 visit, Reese failed to “comply with 6-114-111(e)(2)(a) resulting in Petitioner’s reliance on false information when two staff members with the Clerk’s Office confirmed and verified the elections filings submitted by Petitioner, specifically that school board position No. 1 was ‘scheduled to be filled during the current election’ in March 2024, which was incorrect.”
Ark. Code Ann. 6-114-111(e)(2)(a) also requires County Clerks to reject petitions that do not conform to state law. Woods is currently the elected official for Position 2 and is required by law to run for that specific position to retain his seat on the Norfork Public School Board as it is the seat that is up for re-election, regardless of any alleged attempts or recommendations to rearrange position numbers within the district.
In her response to Woods’s filing, Reese admits that Roberts exchanged emails with Superintendent Layne but denies the allegation that a discussion over renumbering the positions on the Norfork Public Schools’ Board occurred.
Reese also admits that her staff members took Woods’s filings on Nov. 13 but states that her two deputies do not recall a discussion over the correct position number. Reese concedes that the discussion may have happened.
She also notes in her response that Woods has a history of having issues during elections. Woods failed to vote for himself during his election to Position 2 a decade ago, resulting in him not being elected. At the time, Woods was running uncontested. State law requires that candidates receive at least one vote during an election, even if it is uncontested, for the candidate to be duly elected.
Both Reese and Baxter County Prosecutor David Ethredge argue that allowing Woods on the ballot would be “patently unfair” to Position 2 candidate Stephanie Free as she is currently unopposed.
This continues to be a developing story.