A fresh round of drama for 5th Division Circuit Court Judge Willard Proctor Jr.
Proctor was left holding the bag after new Pulaski County Comptroller Mike Hutchens refused to reimburse the judge for travel to an out of town “staff meeting and training” in Dallas – a kind of mini-seminar set up solely for Proctor's staff.
For at least the past two years, Judge Proctor has scheduled five-day-long seminars in which he and the staff of the 5th Division Circuit Court travel out of state, stay in a hotel, and hold discussions with each other and invited experts about how to improve the court's “Cycle Breakers” probation program. According to figures published in a report on Cycle Breakers, Inc. by the State Division of Legislative Audit, in 2006 Pulaski County reimbursed the 5th Division $3,462 for expenses incurred during that year's annual staff training meeting, held in Memphis, Tenn. Cycle Breakers, Inc. provided an additional $1,454 for the trip
While Proctor and his staff apparently traveled to Memphis by car for the 2006 meeting, Proctor scheduled this year's meeting to be held in Dallas, Tex. on December 2 – 6, specifying that the group would fly there. On November 27, Proctor submitted a voucher to the Pulaski County Comptroller's office, requesting reimbursement for 12 airline tickets worth $1425.60, which –according to the Comptroller's office -- Proctor had paid for with his credit card. Comptroller Mike Hutchens refused the request. “Pulaski County's Travel Policy is intended to cover travel to conventions, seminars or business meetings that are scheduled out of town by the group arranging the seminar,” Hutchens wrote. “This meeting appears to be one scheduled solely by and for county employees; therefore, the necessity of the travel is questionable.”
The same day, Proctor sent a two-page reply, stating that there would be four speakers addressing the training seminar in Dallas, including the staff development coordinator for Tarrant County, Tex; the chief of probation services for the northern district of Texas; and a “courtroom security” trainer from the Dallas County, Tex. Sheriff's Department.
Proctor wrote that he planned to personally cover the cost of the hotel, meals and transportation for his staff while in Dallas, but asked Hutchens to re-assess his rejection of the travel reimbursement, “based on training that will be provided.”
On November 29, Hutchens replied to Proctor and again turned down the request for reimbursement. “All arrangements for the meeting, including speakers and location, were made by you or your office,” Hutchens wrote. “This is not the type of event that the country's travel policy was meant to address.”
“You are requesting the county pay to send 12 people to hear 4 speakers,” Hutchens continued. “The converse would probably be more cost effective.”
Reached at his office, Hutchens said that had he paid the travel voucher submitted by Proctor, it would have set a bad precedent – namely, that an elected official or other high-ranking county employee could arbitrarily arrange a “training meeting” for his staff anywhere in the country and then reasonably expect that all travel expenses associated with the meeting would be paid by the county.
“Let's say there's some editorial training that you need to go to. (Your paper) would probably send you there to get your training,” Hutchens said. “That's one thing. But if your editor came in and said: ‘Wow, we're going to have a staff meeting, and we're going to do it in Vegas!' You know, whoever owns the paper is going to trip on that… I'm not willing to sign my name to that kind of deal. With what went on with my predecessor -- it's a new day. We really need a different ship here.”
In the midst of his disagreement with the comptroller's office, Judge Proctor unexpectedly fired 5th Division court reporter Neva Warford when she told him she couldn't go on the trip to Dallas due to a medical condition. Though Warford didn't want to be directly quoted for this article, she said that she had a doctor's note stating that her back problems wouldn't allow her to travel by air and then sit through the long meetings and seminars Proctor had planned. When she went to talk to the judge about opting out of the meeting, she said, Proctor told her that if she didn't attend, he would have to get another court reporter. Warford said she cleaned out her desk and hasn't been back. As a state employee who said she had never taken a sick day or personal day during her time at the 5th Division, Warford said she is considering all her options.
Judge Proctor did not return repeated phone messages seeking comment.