By JOEL PHELPS | The Arkadelphian
At the end of a long meeting of the Clark County Quorum Court, county Judge Troy Tucker warned members of the 11-member panel that, when it comes to county affairs, they should not contact one another outside of public meetings.
“I’m not telling you this is correct, I’m not telling you this is not correct,” Tucker said. “Some of you indicated to me that you were uncomfortable with other justices of the peace contacting you [and] trying to persuade somebody to vote one way or the other. It’s my understanding [that] that’s not permissible. Just throwing that out there.”
For those of you who didn’t witness the shaking of heads by the two news publishers in attendance, let’s set the record straight for Tucker and everyone: It’s most definitely not permissible.
Tucker didn’t name the guilty party/parties, and that’s fine; everyone deserves a second chance. We applaud him for sounding the warning and for doing it publicly. Now turn with us to the latest (20th) version of the Arkansas Freedom of Information handbook, specifically the section pertaining to open public meetings:
“A group meeting of the members of a city council, even if less than a quorum, is subject to the FOIA if members of the council discuss or take action on any matter on which foreseeable city council action will be taken.” It goes on to state that the Act “covers informal, unofficial group meetings for the discussion of governmental business.”
City council, city board, quorum court, school board, tax-funded economic development corporation — it doesn’t matter; the rule is universal for public bodies. Two or more members of a governing board need not socialize. It reeksof planning public business without the knowledge of those they serve (they all seem fond of the public servant title). Many times throughout our news career we have noticed Elected Official Bob talking to Elected Official Susan after a public meeting has adjourned. No more, we say!
In a small town such as Arkadelphia, they could be pondering why their favorite drive-thru is closed or sharing their favorite casserole recipe. But who’s to know what two or more members of any group of folks are really talking about? Judge Tucker made it pretty evident Monday night that some justices of the peace are discussing more than the Super Bowl. If it happened to our neighbors to the south, it could happen in Clark County.
It’s worth noting here that violating the FOIA is a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by 30 days in the slammer and/or a fine of up to $500. Those elected to local governing bodies are good people, generally, and they do care about the prosperity of the communities they serve. So let’s consider some legal ways they can lobby.
May the county judge campaign for or against legislation with a justice outside the public’s purview? It’s absolutely within his power. The same rule applies for a city manager’s one-on-one discussions with city board members. Under the city manager form of government, however, the mayor is not allowed the same privilege since he is a voting member. If one has the power to vote on a board, he/she should be discussing policies with the people who voted them into office.
Sunshine laws are in place for a reason. Why? Because, as the FOIA handbook notes, “It is vital in a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner so that the electors shall be advised of the performance of public officials and of the decisions that are reached in public activity and in making public policy. Toward this end, this chapter is adopted, making it possible for them or their representatives to learn and to report fully the activities of their public officials.”
Toward this end, our message is complete, that we, as your representatives of reporting information, can better serve our communities when public officials conduct their business in front of us.
It seems as if a “training” would be in order.
Or learn the rules and laws.
The county judge and city mayor should require that the first regular public meeting where there is a new member include one hour of training and review of the FOI AND OPEN MEETINGS Law. The attorney for the city or county or a representative from the Arkansas Press Association should conduct the session. This would be training for new members and good review for current members. Since it is not a called or special meeting there would be no additional cost to the city or county.