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I wanted to check up on Jericho, Arkansas. If you recall, I wrote about the town a few times last fall because the unarmed Assistant Fire Chief was shot by Jericho police during an argument between himself and the police chief in court. Jericho has a reputation as a speed trap, an over-abundant and over-eager police force for the town’s size, large gaps in its fiscal reporting, and a mayor accused of gross corruption. I was unable to reach legal counsel concerning the affairs of Jericho and was trying to locate news pieces about it when I ran across the town of Turrell and found an eerily similar situation. Fasten your seatbelts, kits and cats; it’s about to get strange and deja vu ain’t the half of it.

Turrell is an Arkansas town in the Mississippi delta, just off Interstate 55, a few miles up the road from Jericho and home to some 900 people. Though it’s too small to support it’s own school (it had to consolidate with the larger Marion school district), it’s problems are massive. In December, WMC-TV 5 out of Memphis, Tennessee, reported that three Arkansas towns were being investigated for the mishandling of money, including both Turrell and Jericho. This investigation was prompted by last autumn’s events in Jericho, which pointed to various corrupt and fraudlent activities being perpetrated by the mayor and police of that town.

Crittenden County, home of the three towns under investigation, put the Jericho matter in the hands of Prosecuting Attorney Lindsey Fairley, who issued warrants against Assistant Fire Chief Don Payne, the victim in the shooting. Fairley charged no one else. His inaction prompted media to alert state officials and Second District Prosecutor Mike Walden began investigating the events with the state police. Less than three weeks after the WMC-TV article was published came a new and strange twist in the story: Turrell Police Chief Greg Martin entered the home of city councilman Floyd Holmes and threatened him at gunpoint. Just to be clear, yes, that was the chief of police, sworn to protect and serve, pulling a gun on an unarmed councilman, and his wife, in the councilman’s own home. Why? Good question. The answer is long and complicated but essentially comes down to one thing: money.

Just as in Jericho, Turrell’s mayor Franklin Lockhart is accused of hiding city funds and moving them at his discretion instead of allowing the city council’s involvement. It’s not the first time Mayor Lockhart has shut out the council. In fact, in October 2008, he fired them en masse … despite lacking the authority to do so. Floyd Holmes, among those “fired” in 2008, asserted that state law gives the council control over city finances. Mayor Lockhart reportedly contended that the council had no such power but, either way, Turrell entered the new year without a budget and suffered city service interruptions due to lack of information about the town’s financial status. Councilman Holmes said Mayor Lockhart had moved Turrell funds several times, even “across state lines in[to] Tennessee.” The mayor admits he moved the funds but so far won’t say where. According to one source, the city’s budget records have not been complete since 2006. Mr. Holmes said, “We’ve been begging for someone to do something for the last two and a half years.”

On the day of the Turrell incident, Mr. Holmes and other council member Emanual Harris showed up “unannounced” to city hall – with a couple reporters in tow – to retrieve their $100 paychecks as members of the city council. While there, they also asked for the city’s financial records which, as councilmen, they are supposed to be able to access. The records were not made available to them, though no one seems able to say why, and they were denied their paychecks, purportedly because the city did not have enough funds to pay them (according to Mayor Lockhart).

Their request, coupled with the presence of reporters, “rankled” other city officials, including the mayor, and after their appearance Mayor Franklin Lockhart reportedly issued a memo to the council members specifying when and why they could appear at city hall. Lockhart then reportedly directed Police Chief Greg Martin to deliver the notices in person. When Chief Martin arrived at the home of Councilman Holmes, an argument ensued. Chief Martin followed Mr. Holmes into his house and the argument apparently culminated in the police chief drawing his weapon on both Mr. Holmes and his wife while two interior decorators looked on.

Warrants were issued for Chief Martin and he was taken into police custody, charged with two felony counts of aggravated assault. He was released later the same day on a $2500 bond. (As a side note, I wonder what my bond would be if I were charged with two felony counts of aggravated assault against a city official? I’m willing to bet $2500 wouldn’t come close.) Second District Prosecutor Mike Walden, who took up the Jericho case, also stepped in for Turrell. “It’s my understanding, it stems from this ongoing dispute that’s been running between the city council and the mayor’s office,” he told Fox 13 News of Memphis. Mayor Franklin Lockhart has had little to say except that he stands by Chief Martin and describes him as an “outstanding” officer.

An ABC news article also provided this interesting little tidbit: “This comes just two months after Mayor Lockhart asked a judge to place a lien against the members of town council in the amount of $600,000. The mayor claims council members owe the town because they haven’t performed their duties.” Which seems deliciously rich since, by all other accounts, he has prevented them in their duties at every turn.

But then, things get really strange. (Because, yeah, everything’s been right as rain to this point.) Another article reports that Turrell is not supposed to have a police department. At all. The city council has never approved or budgeted “any money for the police department but they’re still up and operating every day,” said Emanual Harris. Co-councilman Floyd Holmes agreed. The men said they have no idea how the police officers in Turrell are being paid or how the force is operating without a budget. They went on to state that Chief Martin had been fired by the council months ago. So how is he still in uniform? Martin was re-hired by Mayor Lockhart. The re-hire was subsequently overruled by the council but was never acknowledged by the mayor or police chief. Harris says, “I want to see something or somebody come in and do something; it’s not right.”

Hopefully, prosecutor Mike Walden is the man for the job.

After bonding out of police custody, and while still under investigation, Martin remains acting chief of police for Turrell. And in relation, the town of Jennette, also in Crittenden County and also under investigation, exemplifies the gross malfeasance at work in the area. It has a population of less than 150 and cannot account for $24,000 dollars in taxpayer funds.

Something, dear readers, is badly amiss.

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I titled this post Nikola’s Newest Incarnation to tip my hat toward old Nikola Tesla, who changed all our lives, and to pull out a terrible pun. See, this is about the upstart automobile manufacturer Tesla Motors (hence the Nikola). And since they build cars… Incarnation = in”car”nation. Get it? (I told you it was terrible.)

Anyway, I got in a discussion about cars and MPGs with a few family members and, amid talk of dismal hybrids and costly conversions, I suddenly remembered a bright spot in the world of automotive technology: Tesla Motors. Or rather, I remembered rumors of their exciting (but expensive) Roadster that had raised eyebrows a few months ago. To refresh our memories, the Roadster is a two-seater sports car with acceleration to 60 mph in 3.9 seconds with a top speed of 125 mph (electronically limited) and maximum 248 horsepower at 6,000 to 8,000 rpm (it redlines at 14,000 rpm). It has a range of over 200 miles on a single charge and can re-charge in three and a half hours with the high power connector (also from Tesla). It’s just over nine and a half feet long and six feet wide, has independent front and rear suspension, a clean and uncluttered interior, all the amenities one expects in a car (air-conditioning, power windows and doors, spiffy stereo system, cruise control, etc.), and – most importantly for a sports car – is a convertible. For an electric car, it’s pretty impressive.

But when I visited Tesla’s homepage to check the specs I discovered a more interesting feature: three new models. Okay, one’s not exactly “new” since deliveries are already being made but it was new to me. So, first up, the Roadster Sport, a beefier (288 horsepower), faster (0 to 60 mph in 3.7 seconds) and more performance-minded car with, unfortunately, a price tag to match ($121,000). The other two are sedans, the Model S and Model S Signature (which is presumably a slightly beefier version of the former, as with the Roadster and Roadster Sport), scheduled for delivery next year.

So let’s run the new specs. The Model S can go 160 miles on a charge or, if you want to upgrade, 230 miles … or if you want to upgrade more, 300 miles. It can charge to 80% capacity in 45 minutes, accomodate 5 adults and two children, and goes from 0 to 60 mph in 5.6 seconds with a maximum speed of 120 mph (also electronically limited). It has a small rear hatchback for storage, as well as a full trunk under the hood (Volkswagen, eat your heart out). The rear seats fold flat to increase storage area if needed and it can purportedly haul a 50″ flatscreen TV or a full set of drums. The base model comes with all the usual amenities (like the Roadster) as well as a 17″ touchscreen with in-car 3G connectivity. I’m no techie but that sounds pretty cool. It costs about $4 to fully charge the battery pack, which has an estimated life span of five to seven years (although it noted ten years was not uncommon with proper maintanence). Best of all, it starts under $50,000.

Although all of Tesla’s products are out of reach for many Americans at this point, I think the progress they’ve made is huge. And if these are any indication, the electric car may not be just an idealistic dream for much longer.

To find out more, visit the Tesla Motors homepage.

All photos courtesy of Tesla Motors.

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Amber Waves of Gain

Let me preface this statistic-rich post by noting the following: 1) most of these numbers were derived from two online sources, so if they were incorrect then I am also; and 2) if you are caught genuinely breaking a law, you deserve to be fined, ticketed, booted, or otherwise reprimanded as defined by local law (with a few exceptions, which may or may not be discussed below). Now, on to the good stuff (it’s long, but it’s worth it).

If the preface didn’t spill the beans, let me do it here by stating that this is a post about our city governments and parking violations.

For instance, in the 2007-2008 fiscal year, New York City brought in revenues of $624 million from parking infractions alone. Since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office in 2001, the city has hired nearly 800 new “traffic enforcement agents” to help maximize this revenue opportunity, and 200 of those new agents were hired this year. These agents write, on average, 40 tickets per shift (according to an MSNBC news article), which equates to roughly 40,000 new tickets written every week. If the amount fined averaged $20 per ticket, that’s an additional $800,000 every week, per shift, for the city’s piggy bank. Not bad, eh? And that doesn’t account for extremes, like the super-agent who wrote 227 tickets in a 5-hour period on Black Friday 2007, when 41,000 citations were issued across the city in one day.

Boston visitors and residents face a rise in fines, a 75% increase on parking more than a foot from the curb and an increase of more than 112% for parking on a crosswalk. In similar fashion, Sacremento tacked an $8 surcharge onto its parking fines with the express intention of collecting an extra $1.5 million … or more … to ease a budgetary shortfall. Meanwhile, Seattle implemented a camera ticketing system which issued 58,000 tickets in its first three months, totaling some $5 million in fines to be collected. And last year in Colorado, Denver’s ticket revenues jumped $4 million, to a total $20 million from parking violations. Is it me or does this seem a bit extreme?

In cities like Louisville, Kentucky, a minimum of two outstanding parking violations will get your car booted. Boots are usually removed by police at their discretion … after you pay your fines, of course. But if you’re in a hurry and happen to be in Montgomery County, Maryland (just outside Washington, D.C.) or in Baltimore, you can use your cell phone to unlock the boot … after paying your fines … and a $115 fee, apparently for the convenience of a quick de-booting. (The system isn’t confined to Maryland; it is used in a dozen cities, including New Orleans.)

Some cities have begun using a camera-equipped system that allows meter agents to drive at normal speeds and simultaneously scan license plates for outstanding parking violations. Nifty, huh? Nab two birds with one stone and boot previous violators for extra money even if they are currently legally parked. But that’s just the beginning. Have you heard about the new parking meters in production? They text message local police as soon as your flag goes up. (Better hope there’s not a meter agent in the area.) And several large cities have issued electronic ticketing machines to their agents, allowing them to ticket 30% faster. Oh good, their antiquated tools and multi-million dollar annual revenues had me concerned about reduced productivity. Whew. That’s a real load off my mind.

One New Yorker said he’s seen drivers get ticketed for double-parking while waiting for someone to pull out of a space on the street, an almost universally accepted act especially common in areas of concentrated population and limited parking. In a similar stretch of the law, an attorney was ticketed for parking “somewhere between one second and 59 seconds too soon” in an alternate-side violation. He fought the ticket and won; the citation was dismissed by a judge. Which brings us to a whole new sub-topic: how many of these charges are legitimate?

In the Bronx, a dozen residents accused a traffic agent of falsely citing them for double-parking, some arguing they were not even in the United States when the tickets were issued (at the time of the article, no charges had been filed against the agent, who the city defended and who remained on duty). A retired Navy veteran said he was ticketed while dropping off his wife in a bus zone. One reader commented that he was sent a parking ticket, complete with late penalties, without having been in the city for twenty years. (Despite the two decade absence, ownership of a vehicle that did not remotely resemble the ticketed car, and a letter he sent to authorities with a copy of his registration, the ticket is unresolved.)

Another reader said, “the New York City parking signs have purposely been made so confusing that even police officers cannot tell you if it is okay to park.” He went on to note that many signs were damaged, illegible, or missing altogether but agents still ticketed in the effected areas. In some areas, he also shared, “we have Muni-meters, where you have to park your car then walk to the meter several yards away to buy a receipt…to place in the windshield. Meter people will watch you walk to the meter and give you a ticket before you can get back to the car with the receipt. This is NYC government-sanctioned mugging.” Posters from other cities shared stories of similar abuses and I have no doubt that thousands more could easily be included, everything from unlawful ticketing and conspiracy to purposefully mass-ticket all the way to outright harrassment.

And not just in New York City. People from Columbus, Ohio, and Santa Monica, California, share the same stories, as do citizens from Fort Worth, Texas, and Portland, Oregon. Obviously, these are not isolated incidents but a general trend among cities with the primary goal of raising funds. By any means necessary. Chicago, Atlanta, Denver, it makes no difference, and the more tickets written, bogus or otherwise, the more revenues will increase. (For a disgustingly blatant example, visit my previous post, “Holy Jericho”.)

I will take this opportunity to reiterate that those legitimately breaking the law deserve to be fined … but only those breaking the law, and they should not be fined unreasonable amounts.

I’ve had three parking tickets over the years and I paid every one of them without complaint. Even though the last two were tenuously legal at best, I paid, took my receipt, and walked away without a word. Because it wasn’t worth fighting. For $40 I retained the ability to work a full schedule instead of missing days to fight the tickets in court. I retained anonymity and did not bring down the wrath of meter maids and law enforcement everywhere I went. (If you think that’s not important, you’ve never lived in a smaller town.) I avoided the costly unpleasantness of hiring a lawyer. I learned when and where I could push the law, and when and where I couldn’t. I learned that legality has absolutely nothing to do with decency, common sense, or common courtesy. And all for the low low price of only $40.

I’m not denouncing parking tickets. I am denouncing the growing practice of manufacturing falsities and extorting money out of a populace to fund government greed and idiocy. And so should you. It makes me wonder … what else are they falsely accusing us of? How many innocent people are being ruined by similar practices in other disciplines? Like taxes, for example. If the IRS came calling, could you prove your financial statements to their specifications? There is no statute of limitations; what if they ask for files from a decade ago, or two? Or how about the Department of Homeland Security accusing you of terrorist activity, seizing your property, and denying you trial? It’s perfectly legal and they can sell any seized property for profit without ever formally charging you. Local police have the same authority for drug-related activities and can gleen millions annually from the sales of seized items. Why? The short answer is money. But, really, is that all? Is that why are our freedoms are being pared down to nothing while government payrolls balloon and hoover up any dollar they can find?

These are questions we should be asking.
These are questions we should be asking every day, because this country is feeling less and less like ours.

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In the flatland of Arkansas’s Mississippi delta rests a small town named Jericho. Just off the interstate and home to less than 200 people, motorists generally pass it by on I-55 without a moment’s notice. Unless you’re driving through town, that is.

“You can’t even buy a loaf of bread, but we’ve got seven police officers,” said former resident Larry Harris.

Some news broadcasts confirm only six but at either count, those police officers were well-known for their propensity to write tickets, to such an extent that many locals and passers-through called the town a blatant speed trap. Among other infringements, officers also routinely wrote tickets while well out of their jurisdiction and for actions which are not illegal. Larry Harris, quoted above, moved away from Jericho to escape law enforcement’s heavy hand there. Another resident stayed in Jericho but agreed that the police were prolific ticketers.

“They wrote me a ticket for going 58 mph in my driveway,” said Albert Beebe, a 75-year-old retiree.

On August 27, the issue came to a head. Local Volunteer Fire Chief Don Payne was issued a traffic ticket and disputed it in court but failed to get it dismissed. He was ticketed again later that day and returned to court to dispute it. This time he let his unvarnished opinions fly in front of the judge and the attending police officers.

At some point, it developed into an argument between Volunteer Fire Chief Don Payne and the police, all of whom attended the proceedings. The argument then turned into a scuffle and Payne was shot. That’s right, in the middle of a court in session, in full view of the presiding judge, a Jericho police officer drew a pistol and fired on the unarmed fire chief.

The bullet grazed another officer and struck Don Payne in the hip. He was transported to the Memphis Regional Medical Center and is currently in good condition.

Presiding judge Tonya Alexander voided all outstanding tickets issued by the Jericho police force for the month prior and, following the incident, resigned from her position. Police Chief Willie Frazier disbanded the force for the time being and the Crittenden County Sheriff’s Office took over policing duties in the area. The identity of the officer who shot Volunteer Fire Chief Don Payne has not been released and Payne is not speaking out on the issue. No charges have been filed against anyone, but Police Chief Willie Frazier and the former police department are now under investigation.

And not just for the shooting. It seems Jericho police had a funding problem. Despite writing unusually high numbers of tickets, which should have generated a lot of income for the town, one of the Jericho cruisers and one of its fire trucks were repossessed. (I have a feeling the loss of that fire truck may have had something to do with the fire chief’s growing displeasure with the police force.) To date, the police have issued no statements and provided no records indicating where the funds may have gone, not even to the sheriff’s office and investigators. Allegations point toward officers pocketing the money themselves. Police Chief Willie Frazier is also said to have used town vehicles for personal use, including repeatedly driving his squad car on 140-mile round-trip excursions to Atoka, Tennessee. The investigation is just getting started.

I believe, in Jericho, walls are about to come down.

You can read more in the AP article or listen to short reports from the regional news station here.

I tagged this as humorous – which it is – but at the same time I am completely disgusted by this reviling excuse for a police department. How many years have they defrauded the public? How many thousands have they illegally collected? And I cannot believe this whole set-up did not raise some eyebrows at county level long before now. Why wasn’t someone with authority asking questions? Just how many towns with a population under 200 can afford half a dozen police? One town I live near has a population of over 400, contains several businesses, and can afford two.

That impossible people-to-police ratio must have attracted attention. The Crittenden County Sheriff’s Office was very familiar with Jericho police, just eight miles away, and it was even reported that Jericho police often left their cruisers at the Sheriff’s Office overnight to avoid vandals. This wasn’t a podunk outpost in a far corner of the county; this was just off the interstate, eight miles down the road, and the officers drove right into the sheriff’s parking lot.

As in most cases, I’d say the corruption surfacing in Jericho is just part of a larger tangle of malfeasance. The real questions, I suppose, is how far the tangle reaches, what all it ensnares, and how many other towns – all across the country – live with one eerily like it on their own streets.

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