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Editorial Roundup: Recent editorials in Arkansas newspapers

January 30, 2018

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Arkansas newspapers:

Texarkana Gazette. Jan. 27, 2018.

How often have we heard local residents express frustration with the driving habits of their neighbors?

It’s been a staple of water cooler conversation and tavern talk for years and now has moved over to social media. Texarkana residents seem to think other Texarkana residents — not themselves, of course — are among the worst drivers ever to pilot a motorized vehicle.

And it’s a bit hard to argue once you’ve dodged speeders, lane cutters and traffic light runners on State Line Avenue or some other major roadway.

But not everyone agrees — at least when it comes to the west side of the state line.

Wallet Hub, a Washington, D.C.-based personal finance website that does all sorts of interesting if not particularly useful studies, recently named Texas the best state in the whole country for driving.

No, we aren’t kidding. Now we can just hear the comments. Obviously WalletHub has never tried to get around in Austin, Dallas, Houston or even Texarkana. But that’s not what the site was looking at. Well, not entirely.

WalletHub based its ranking on things like the cost of ownership and maintenance, access to car dealerships and repair facilities, infrastructure, overall safety and fatality rates, gas prices and, yes, traffic.

Apparently the long, lonesome roads of West Texas made up for the congested highways in Central and East Texas, where not only do you put your life but your sanity at risk.

Arkansas, by the way, was pretty far up the list, too. The Natural State came in as No. 9.

Hawaii was dead last. California, Washington, Maryland and Alaska didn’t fare much better.

So the next time you are out in your vehicle, trying to stay alive among drivers who shouldn’t be allowed on a skateboard, take comfort. You are in the best state in the country for driving — or at least the ninth best state.

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Southwest Times Record. Jan. 28, 2018.

Complying with the Freedom of Information Act continues to be an issue in our area, although we’re not sure why it’s proving to be so challenging for some local elected officials. In recent years, there have been so many examples of what not to do (more specifically, why board members can’t discuss public business outside of a meeting). And yet, violations continue. We’ve seen progress in places, but there’s still a long way to go.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requires governing bodies (such as a city board of directors or a school board) to conduct its business in the open, only convening into closed session for a handful of reasons. It allows access to public records and requires governing bodies to post notice of their meetings in the media. It says members of governing bodies cannot gather outside of a meeting to discuss the public’s business. The Arkansas attorney general, who has hosted FOIA town hall meetings, even refers to the state’s law as “one of the most comprehensive and strongest open-records and open-meetings laws in the country,” something we’re proud of. Like it or hate it, it’s the law, and until it changes, governing officials must comply with it.

The public’s business got a little more public recently when the city of Fort Smith began making Board of Directors’ emails available to anyone who wants to download them. And while those emails have always been available to anyone through a Freedom of Information request, posting them online for immediate download tells us the city has nothing to hide — as it shouldn’t. We applaud the move and believe it will help the city in its efforts to avoid possible FOIA violations in the future. We urge other area cities and schools to follow suit and continue to urge any and all groups conducting the public’s business to undergo yearly FOIA training. More access to information regarding what’s going on within the city will always be welcome.

The email accessibility comes as the city says it will appeal a recent judge’s decision that email exchanges from May through August of last year did, indeed, violate FOIA laws. The city has spent thousands to fight the lawsuit, which should be some motivation for making the emails more accessible. Or perhaps knowing the emails can be quickly downloaded by anyone with a computer will act as a deterrent to conducting business outside of a meeting. The outcome of the appeal remains to be seen, although we can’t imagine why or how the initial ruling could change.

Meanwhile, recent events in Mansfield show that even small towns aren’t exempt from FOIA laws. A lawsuit filed earlier in January claims the Mansfield City Council held a secret meeting by way of text message; the Mansfield mayor is the plaintiff.

The Mansfield City Council in late January accepted a settlement with regards to the lawsuit, which we believe was a wise decision. Part of the settlement includes board members agreeing to undergo training on FOIA laws. Clear FOIA violations were made, whether intentional or not. Let it serve as a lesson, both to those involved and to other boards in our area. Discussing public business outside of an announced meeting — even it’s through text messages — is a violation of Arkansas law.

“As good as your hearts may have been to seek information, the fact remains that those discussions cannot be in the form of emails or texts or conversations because those are not public meetings that the public has notice of and has an opportunity to give its input and listen, so that was a mistake that was made,” Mansfield City Attorney Matt Ketcham said in addressing the board.

Stronger efforts must be made to avoid potential FOIA violations, and we feel the availability to view city leaders’ emails is a good start. But we need more public entities on board. As we’ve written before, communication outlets are constantly changing. Who would have guessed even 10 years ago that text messages would be subject to freedom of information laws? But they are, and groups must be kept abreast of the changing laws. That’s why training is vital. City councils and other boards must be proactive in their approach on this. They should look at the examples from the past couple of years if they think it’s a waste of time. We doubt any of our area boards wants to be subject to another lawsuit.

Any elected official, whether representing a city, school or something else, must be conscious of his or her actions when public business is being discussed, whether it’s in person, by phone, by email or by text or by social media. Those discussions are subject to FOIA laws.

Kudos to the city of Fort Smith for the increased accessibility to directors’ emails. Let’s hope the push toward more openness continues. It’s a good example for others in our area to follow. Newspapers will continue to be champions of the Freedom of Information Act, but elected officials can be, too. So let’s hope through education and accessibility, allegations of FOIA violations will stop making the front page.

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Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Jan. 30, 2018.

At last and still running count, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences had to eliminate some 600 positions from its once bulging budget. Nearly 260 of those positions were filled when the cuts were announced earlier this month. And the system’s auditors are having to meet every couple of weeks to keep watch on this new chronic crisis. That was the word from Jacob Flournoy, the university system’s top auditor — a man who has his hands full these deficit-laden days.

Yep, no matter how important, even life-saving, a medical institution’s mission may be, it still needs to balance its books. Or one day it may have to close its doors unless some heaven-sent angel comes to its rescue. (As, sure enough, one does from time to welcome time.) But a prudent bookkeeper cannot go on depending on an angel’s appearance forever. It turns out there’s no line in the budget for Miracles Due.

UAMS already had planned for deficit budgets for the past five years. So says its chief financial officer, Bill Bowes. In its own way UAMS has to be all things to all patients. Which means it has to handle a virtually infinite challenge with finite resources, however great they be. Part of the challenge, he notes, is that UAMS must try to pay for “our academic programs, our research and our clinical activity with a heavy, heavy reliance on our clinical revenues. But you know, we did that, and we also realized at some point we’re going to have to make a correction, which is what we’re doing this year.”

That’s a nice way to say UAMS is going to have to cut its budget now, and it won’t be easy. Change happens, and more is bound to come.

UAMS now gets four-fifths of its revenue from its patients and/or those who insure them, which it then uses to subsidize its many academic and research activities. So notes chancellor Stephanie Gardner, who’s in the job on an interim basis herself. Even medical care is just another commodity when it comes to one law that has not and cannot be changed: the law of supply and demand. And at least for the moment, the demand side of the equation far exceeds the supply. So any help UAMS can line up is not only welcome but may prove essential.

“It’s not unusual for facilities like ours,” continues Chancellor Gardner, “to engage with consultants to try to find more efficiencies in that process because, again, if the bulk of your revenue is coming from clinical revenue, you need optimization of that process, and that’s really what this was about.” Which is a multi-syllabic way to say: Adapt to these hard times or die.

A couple of the university system’s trustees are calling for monthly meetings of its hospital committee, which numbers 10, to pay closer attention to UAMS’ problems. Here’s hoping all UAMS’ problems will now get the just attention they deserve.

“I’ll say this,” trustee John Goodson observed, “I think the board of trustees dropped the ball. We should have dialed into this at the beginning of last summer.” At least. For, as always, time is money.

The alarm’s just gone off, and hitting the snooze button still again is no longer an option. For this elaborate fiscal dance couldn’t go on forever.

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