Mayor responds to lawsuit filed against city regarding condemned homes

Published: Sep. 22, 2023 at 10:36 AM CDT|Updated: Sep. 28, 2023 at 8:44 PM CDT
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OSCEOLA, Ark. (KAIT) - The mayor of Osceola responded to a lawsuit accusing him and the city of conspiring to condemn certain properties for personal profit.

Baratelli Arkansas Properties, LLC filed a lawsuit Monday, Sept. 11, against the City of Osceola and Joe Harris Jr. Trucking Inc. Del-Ark Consulting, which is owned by Mayor Joe Harris, Jr.

Mayor Harris told K8 News on Thursday, Sept. 28 that he and the city have been sued “for clean up.”

”A man from Florida came in and bought a bunch of our older property, not doing anything at all with it. We’ve served him with papers, no response, so we decided to take it on and let’s clean this town up. I promised that to the people and it’s going to happen,” Harris said.

Harris said the properties owned by Baratelli were not the only ones they were focusing on as part of an effort to clean up the city.

“We’re cleaning up everybody’s buildings. I had a property that was dilapidated. My old family home, it was dilapidated. We had to clean it up,” Harris said.

The lawsuit states that Baratelli acquired several properties in Osceola between 2021 and 2022 from the state to make improvements to them.

During this time, the company claims the city supported its actions and “gave no indication that these properties were at risk of being condemned.”

However, on Feb. 28, the company received a letter stating that the properties were at risk of being condemned.

Baratelli attempted to work with the city for three months without any luck. The city eventually advised the company that “nothing could be done to bring these properties up to code,” according to the lawsuit.

The city also told Baratelli that it could either demolish the properties or the city would “take matters into their own hands.”

On May 15, the city passed an emergency ordinance allowing the city to do business with Joe Harris Jr. Trucking Hauling Inc.

“Joe Harris Jr. Trucking Hauling Inc. is hereby authorized and permitted to conduct business with the City of Osceola, Arkansas, including hauling, selling, materials, etc., purchases from Joe Harris Jr. Trucking Hauling Inc. that excess the mayor/city employee purchasing power or large contract shall be approved by a resolution of the city council by majority vote, after consideration of any offer to purchase which procured for the city of Osceola using state-mandated procurement procedures,” the ordinance states.

An invitation to bid was then published in the Osceola Times on June 22. The lawsuit states this was the only notice run by the city.

Fourteen bids were then awarded at the July city council meeting for the demolition of the condemned properties. Seven were awarded to Joe Harris Jr. Trucking Inc. and the other seven were awarded to Jimmy Caruthers.

The lawsuit notes that eight of the properties awarded belonged to Baratelli. Those properties are listed below:

  • 418 Bowen
  • 420 Bowen
  • 422 Bowen
  • 423 Bowen
  • 425 Bowen
  • 613 East Johnson
  • 615 East Johnson

The Bowen contracts were awarded to Mayor Harris for $6,100 each, while Caruthers was awarded the East Johnson properties for $4,500.

The properties have since been demolished by the city.

Baratelli had sold the East Johnson properties for $8,000, but the contract for the sale is now “irreparably frustrated.” The company also said the city interfered with the sale of the Bowen properties, which were to be sold for $68,0840 in an owner-finance agreement.

The lawsuit claims the intended buyer of the Bowen properties backed out of the deal because of “hostility” from the city.

Baratelli attempted to negotiate another owner-finance contract valued at $12,000. Three other homes on Bowen also had owner-finance agreements; however, those contracts have all been terminated.

The lawsuit further states the city has threatened to demolish or inhibited progress on several properties owned by Baratelli.

The company claims the city conspired to condemn the properties through municipal procedures by enforcing an “unsightly conditions” ordinance and then awarding the demolition contracts to the mayor’s private business.

The city of Osceola is accused of one count of civil conspiracy to tortiously interfere with business expectancy and two counts of tortious interference with business expectancy.

On Sept. 12, a temporary restraining order was filed against the city to prevent it from “demolishing any more properties owned by plaintiff or to which plaintiff has vested a financial interest.”

A jury trial was requested in the lawsuit. That trial date has yet to be determined.