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Editorial Roundup: Recent editorials in Arkansas newspapers

June 25, 2019

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Arkansas newspapers:

Southwest Times Record. June 23, 2019.

Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Josephine Linker Hart last week perfectly summed up our own feelings on why Freedom of Information laws are so important: “Secrecy is poison to democracy.”

Justice Hart wrote the dissenting opinion in the court’s split opinion in favor of the city of Fort Smith in the 2017 Freedom of Information Act case alleging misuse of public meeting requirements.

The court overturned a 2018 Sebastian County Circuit Court finding that alleged City Administrator Carl Geffken and city Directors Keith Lau, Mike Lorenz and Andre Good had violated meeting requirements outlined in Arkansas law through an email exchange about the city Civil Service Commission.

A split decision by the court, where justices both dissented and concurred with the ruling, is hardly a vindication for the city. The court disagreed with the city of Fort Smith’s argument that emails should not extend to the state’s Freedom of Information Act, something we’ve said when this case first came about in late 2017. Discussions were held in private, via email, about the public’s business, and that’s wrong.

The court ultimately sent the case back to the circuit court because, as Justice Shawn A. Womack writes, “the definition of ‘public meetings’ in the FOIA does not provide the same affirmative textual clarity to support a definitive conclusion that emails can constitute a public meeting, as the majority has held here.”

Robert Steinbuch, one of the co-authors of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act textbook, is even still scratching his head over this one.

“Usually the Supreme Court gets it right, but this time they strayed a little,” Steinbuch said Friday in phone interview with the Times Record. “It creates more confusion.”

For those who may have missed it, the state high court handed down a long-awaited ruling Thursday on the 2017 FOIA violation case Wade vs. City of Fort Smith. In 2018, the Sebastian County Circuit Court agreed with Bruce Wade that Geffken and the city directors had violated meeting requirements outlined in Arkansas Law through an email exchange about the city Civil Service Commission.

On Thursday, while the court disagreed with the city of Fort Smith’s argument that emails should not extend to the state’s Freedom of Information Act, it ultimately sent the case back to the circuit court because there was no decision made in the email exchange.

“We were confident the court would find in our favor because we did follow the law,” Geffken says in a news release. “We appreciate this vindication, and we will continue to do the right thing: to abide by all requirements for open, public meetings and public records.”

According to a statement from the city, Geffken in an email to city directors outlined their possible options regarding the Civil Service Commission, which at the time had received a request from former Fort Smith Police Chief Nathaniel Clark to allow qualified applicants from other law enforcement agencies to apply for positions within the Police Department. Two city directors “replied all” to express favor for an option. The third city director favored an option a couple of days later, according to a city news release.

The court’s decision is confusing because the email exchange can be considered substantive. So, in essence, it was a meeting. If it was just material being presented for the next meeting, for example, then it wouldn’t be considered substantive.

“What the court’s ruling gets wrong is in determining whether a substantive exchange took place,” Steinbuch said. “What took place in the Wade case was substantive. Their failure to recognize that is a mistake in the law and will now invite more litigation to determine the scope of what is substantive ... . The city got off by their skin of their teeth. The court carved out just enough so they were not implicated.”

We agree with the author that the ruling raises a question: Why is the city trying to walk such a fine line on transparency? Why not just be more transparent? Have these discussions in the light of day. The emails between the city directors discussed public business on important topics — policy on police hiring and possibly dissolution of the Civil Service Commission — behind closed doors. It’s that simple.

“This is not an example of the city being more transparent, regardless of what the Supreme Court defines as the scope of the FOIA,” Steinbuch said.

To err is human. We all do it. But we also learn best from our mistakes when we admit we were wrong and move on, hoping to not make the same mistake. The fear here is the Arkansas Supreme Court ruling could set a precedent of allowing what essentially constitutes backroom discussions on public business.

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Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. June 23, 2019.

The verdict is in: As Benton County justices of the peace weigh what to do with the county’s need for courtroom space, they seem determined not to seek a change of venue.

County Judge Barry Moehring a few days back outlined for the Quorum Court five options for moving forward in pursuit of a courts solution. In truth, there’s a sixth option, which would be to do nothing. That, however, would most definitely be moving backward.

Voters in March resoundingly rejected county leadership’s proposal to build an 87,000-square-foot, four-story courthouse in downtown Bentonville. While nobody can read the mind of every voter, it’s pretty much accepted that the electorate did not take kindly to the price tag of $30 million or the 54-month, one-eighth cent sales tax that would have paid for a big part of it.

Moehring and the Quorum Court have had a couple of months to lick their electoral wounds. It might be tempting to avoid the subject, but Moehring recognizes the truth: Benton County’s courthouse deficiencies need to be addressed. Today, three judges hold court in the historic Benton County Courthouse on the square. Two other judges handle cases in two other downtown buildings converted into courtroom spaces that have never fit the bill as long-term solutions.

The state Legislature in the spring also authorized a new judgeship for Benton County to better disperse the growing workload of criminal and civil cases. That judge will be elected in 2020 and take office the following year, although where that judge will preside remains to be seen. Has a judge ever held court in the open-air space of the square, under the watchful eye of the Confederate soldier?

OK, not really an option. So the county judge enumerated the options as he saw them. That included asking voters to consider, at a general election, the same proposal rejected in the March special election.

It’s perhaps a surprise to no one that Moehring and the Quorum Court recognized the futility of that approach. If 62% trounced the proposal in March, it would be extraordinary to see a turnaround at a general election.

So what’s left?

— A long-term bond (debt), requiring the county to pay more than $1.8 million yearly for a 20-year bond and $1.4 million for a 25-year bond. Such a plan would require voter approval.

— A lease-to-purchase option that would have another group pay to construct the building. The county would then pay a $1.7 million yearly lease. The lease would be subject to annual renewal and appropriation, Moehring said. The county would own the building after 25 years.

— A Southwest 14th Street location near the county jail. The option would cost $38 million, and a building with a basement is estimated at $42 million, according to Moehring.

— A downtown alternative with continued use of the three courtrooms in the historic Benton County Courthouse. The old jail area behind the courthouse would be demolished and replaced by a building with four courtrooms. The plan would cost less than $15 million. Possible funding would include the sale of two current courts buildings, $2 million from the Walton Family Foundation, funding from reserves and a short-term bond.

Without new revenue (i.e., a tax), any bond measure or lease-to-purchase would demand a seven-figure commitment of payments out of the county’s annual budget. That could impact spending on other county responsibilities.

At a recent meeting, members of the Quorum Court informally expressed favor for that last option. It is no long-term solution — maybe 10 to 15 years, according to Moehring — but it relieves the immediate pressure to provide space and improve security, a critical component of any judicial system in this day and age.

Is this the best solution? No. A single building such as the one proposed in the March election is the best solution. But building a few new courtrooms in a building next to the historic courthouse may be what’s achievable, and that’s ultimately what matters on public projects.

It remains an obligation of county government to fix this. It cannot do that without a supportive public, the people served by the system of justice. Benton County’s system has been kept together with baling wire, duct tape and spare parts for long enough. Being a growing community with a robust economy cannot just be about new stores to shop in and an ever-expanding list of restaurants in which to dine. The people of Benton County usually take care of business. The judicial system functions beyond most residents’ day-to-day living, so perhaps it’s forgivable that it’s not front of mind for them. But all 270,000-plus residents of the county as well as the businesses that operate there need and deserve an effective judicial system to give people their day in court.

The $15 million plan sounds doable and ends the practice of kicking the can further down the road. As the county also begins discussions about the need for a possible jail expansion, perhaps that might also be future opportunity to find additional space for the courts that would provide a longer-term solution.

Plenty of details remain, but the presentation and straw poll among Quorum Court members is a good start to fixing Benton County’s challenge with its courts system.

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Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. June 25, 2019.

Some people use Facebook solely to argue politics and religion. (Poor souls.) That would seem to get old quick. Especially for those who don’t have a sense of humor that they’re aware of.

Thankfully, some folks in northwest Arkansas have found a way to use Facebook to their advantage — or at least to the advantage of some kids who might need help. You might remember the “Fight at the Water Tower” from last year.

For those unfamiliar, anonymous (silly) folk started up fake Facebook pages like the City of Bentonville and the City of Fayetteville awhile back — mainly to make jokes about the locals and poke fun at surrounding towns. It wasn’t long before the joke spread. And now there are fake pages for all sorts of towns from Little Rock to Fort Smith to Farmington.

It’s easy to see a particularly strong rivalry between the Bentonville and Rogers pages, as there is between Bentonville and Rogers in every other aspect of life. After a few rounds of likes, shares and “tag friends,” those chatting on these pages vowed to meet at the Bentonville water tower last year for a “fight.”

It turned into a friendly competition to see which town could bring in the most donations for charity. And last week, they held the second Fight at the Water Tower. Are you ready to rumble?

The event was held at the relatively new 8th Street Market in Bentonville, a hip little hangout with restaurants, food trucks, shops, a culinary school and more. Donations like canned goods and school supplies were accepted, with some proceeds from businesses in the market going to Children’s Advocacy Center of Benton County. Food and school supplies went to the Samaritan Community Center.

On the event page, about 500 people said they’d come to the event, with another 2,400 saying they were interested in it. We drove to Bentonville, grabbed a sandwich and waited around to see what’d happen.

Last Friday was a hot first day of summer, with temperatures in the 90s and heat indexes close to 100 degrees. The event started by accepting donations around noon, with plans to keep taking them until 8 p.m. Some sort of party was supposed to kick off at 5 p.m. with music and more food, maybe some games.

The temperatures might have kept large crowds away because there weren’t more than 50 people there for the several hours we haunted the place. The last Fight at the Water Tower took place in December and had a larger crowd with hundreds of people. It’s understandable this event probably would see more people when the weather’s better.

In late June/early July, in Arkansas, the weather’s not better.

A white tent was set up for donations in the front parking lot. It was pretty hard to miss. The tent and four guys working under it sat next to a truck with a large boombox painted on the outside.

We strolled over to the tent to see how things were going. The four guys trying to stay in the shade (understandably so) were eating lunch in between accepting donations, and it looked like the truck was about a quarter full at the time. We figured that collection would grow as the party got going.

To keep the spirit of competition alive, volunteers had a banner under the tent with Team Rogers and Team Bentonville on it. (The Rogers side may have said “Royers,” as that’s come to be a nickname among these Facebook pages.) With each person that came up to donate, volunteers would ask what city they wanted to represent. Talk about competition. These folks were seriously keeping tally! Once people donated, they were given a swag bag with some goodies for their efforts.

We asked if the person running the City of Bentonville fake Facebook page was in attendance, but we were quickly told that individual prefers to remain anonymous. It’s understandable. He or she posts a lot of funny stuff, but he or she also rubs a few people the wrong way.

One of the volunteers was quickly offered up to us inky wretches as an interview sacrifice because he was the best public speaker, according to his co-workers.

The “volunteered” was Jeff Church, and he said he ran one of those glass and vape shops in Fayetteville. One might wonder how a vape shop gets involved in a food-and-school-supplies charity, but apparently Church saw these fake city Facebook pages talking trash and joking with each other online — and decided to get involved in their next Fight at the Water Tower event.

Church hinted he might have been voluntold to appear and collect donations since the vape shop was a sponsor for the event. But he laughed and said everyone was in good cheer: “It’s for a good cause. Nobody has actually complained about being out here.”

And it turns out the charity event means something more to Church because of how he grew up — in Springdale with kids that didn’t get a meal every day. Church also told us he believes all children deserve a good education and hoped the school supplies being donated would help accomplish that.

“I hope this amounts to helping those kids out,” he said. “I hate to see anyone go hungry.”

Outside the store he manages, homeless people often beg next to the Interstate 49 exit in Fayetteville. He said he helps where he can, but hopes events like this can change things for the better. Ultimately, Jeff Church said he’d like to see homelessness ended.

So would we. Grand hopes from a charity event designed to bring other people who hope together. That’s always good stuff for our crusty hearts.

And to think, all of this good came about because some hucksters on Facebook decided to make satire pages and poke fun at each other. What a world!

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