Hughes councilwoman who proposed bonuses was cited in school board audit

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HUGHES, Ark. -- Community members are complaining about Hughes City Council members receiving retroactive bonuses for 2017.

It's the first time such bonuses have been proposed/approved since at least the 1970's.

People are questioning why council members are getting that money when the city needs every penny. There are several restoration projects currently being called for across Hughes.

Councilwoman Sheryl Owens proposed the bonuses because the mayor gets one every year. She said she didn’t know people were upset with it.

“We have a lot of issues bigger than a bonus," said councilwoman Owens. "Bonuses to go to elected officials when you’ve already decided to give one elected official a bonus -- to me, that’s totally unfair.”

Owens was the former superintendent of the Hughes School District.

The Arkansas State Board of Education voted for the Hughes School District to consolidate with West Memphis in 2015 after enrollment numbers kept going down at the high school and elementary school.

After Hughes schools closed, an audit found Owens was overpaid nearly $14,000 without any supporting paperwork for the amount.

Documents say that was the difference between what she was supposed to be paid in her retirement and what she actually allowed herself to be paid.

A warrant was filled out for her arrest on charges of theft of property, abuse of office and more last year.

However, a prosecutor said he thought it's be better for her to pay restitution than be prosecuted for criminal charges.

She wrote a check to the district for over $12,000 in restitution last year.

“I have never been charged for anything," she said. "I’ve been indicted, I’ve never been convicted and I’ve never been arrested for anything.”

She left the rest of our questions to a financial adviser, who said the school district managers had agreed to pay Owens for unused sick and vacation leave after the districts merged.

He said the state later disagreed with that decision and made her pay back the vacation money, saying it was a miscommunication.

We reached out to the State Board of Education and the prosecutor’s office to get more information about this, but we haven’t heard back as of Tuesday evening.

The St. Francis County prosecutor’s office has confirmed a different Hughes council member and the city treasurer are currently being investigated for fraud, forgery and perjury in connection to a petition put out to recall the mayor. They’re being accused of forging signatures.