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Well, well, a circuit court jury in Benton County ruled the Southwestern Electric Power Co. owes nearly a million dollars to owners of the Wild Wilderness Drive-Through animal park in Gentry.

The ruling came after the utility company condemned, then acquired a 9-acre easement through that popular 400-acre park as the initial phase of a 345-kilovolt transmission line into the Ozarks that never came to pass.

From all I can tell, jurors realized the damage to that family-owned park with a four-mile drive was far more significant and the appraised value higher than attorneys for the utility had argued. So they awarded the owners the amount they and their attorney, Sandy McMath of Little Rock, said was necessary to restore the property taken by condemnation and establish the true assessed value of the remaining acreage and the cost of building new infrastructure and veterinary services to properly care for the animals that were affected.

Reporter Tracy Neal said in a news story that this was actually the second trial and verdict in the case. The first time around, also before Judge Brad Karren, the park received $87,539. But the Court of Appeals sent the case back last spring for a retrial.

"I believe the jury not only did the right thing financially by these people, but realized just how much the utility's action also had cost their business that began in the 1950s," said McMath. There's no doubt in my pea brain that the utility's actions damaged the park.

The easement in question was part of the initial phase of a mega-transmission line to stretch more than 50 miles from Benton County across Carroll County to a station in a field along the Kings River near Berryville. Many believed, and still do, that the park condemnation and acquisition of the easement was merely the first step in a multi-stage plan to run an enormous line across the state.

I'm certain many readers recall that fiasco led to a prolonged outcry and a revolt by hundreds of citizens across the affected counties and the formation of the activist group called Save The Ozarks.

Those citizens together raided their personal bank accounts to contribute to the costs involved in legal wranglings with fighting SWEPCO, lasting many months and costing a lot of private citizens thousands of dollars they never recouped.

They'd fought that battle and, in effect, emerged victorious when SWEPCO said regional transmission organization Southwest Power Pool pulled the plug on the entire idea, saying the controversial line wasn't really necessary. So the property SWEPCO had condemned and purchased at the safari park became all but irrelevant. Oops.

Peter Main of SWEPCO said his employer is reviewing the verdict to determine what to do next.

I say McMath and company did a fine job and wonder why SWEPCO would bother keeping this embarrassment lingering before the people of Arkansas. Rest assured the utility can well afford to compensate the good folks who built and opened this animal park decades ago. Let them restore their livelihood and hopefully move forward with what they had until three years ago.

Smoke or fire?

When Benton County Sheriff Kelley Cradduck gets stuck in the muck, he just can't seem to wipe himself off. Earlier this year, a stink arose about his chief deputy using a county patrol car to take a vacation to Florida. He said he'd handled and disciplined that deputy and reiterated his policies about his staff misusing public property. But then the prosecutor wrote him the other day to say he had yet to see any such policy changes in writing.

Seems policies in writing can prove helpful in the future should the prosecutor decide to file charges if similar misuse occurs.

Even more recently, Robin Holt filed a grievance against Cradduck claiming the chief had wrongfully demoted her from lieutenant after she'd reported to her superior that Cradduck had ordered her to backdate an apparent friend of the sheriff's start date to a week earlier than was true. That acquaintance, Gabriel Cox, was said to be residing with the sheriff at that time in early October.

Anyway, Holt claims she refused to comply, and the prosecutor became involved, who involved the Arkansas State Police, who then interviewed Holt and others. She contends Cradduck demoted her for cooperating with state police investigators in their examination of his alleged backdating order.

And so as the days of our lives unfold, Cradduck, who also had had a plateful of grief with his wife (and more recently himself) being ill, faces even more challenges.

The sheriff denies he issued any backdating order. Time, and the investigation, will tell if a newly named special prosecutor discovers sufficient fire in all this smoke to file charges. If he does, Cradduck, a man I've known and admired for years, will have the opportunity to prove his innocence in court.

If, sadly, Cradduck did issue such an order that would have compromised his deputy's ethics and oath, then he'll inevitably encounter the justice he's been entrusted to uphold over a lengthy career in law enforcement.

Mike Masterson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at mikemasterson10@hotmail.com.

Editorial on 11/18/2015

Print Headline: Safari park wins case, justice roars

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