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More on Arkansas Freedom of Information Act (AFOIA)

If you’re a community member who believes in open and transparent government, and/or if you have had trouble getting public records or notice of public meetings from the county, this is a great time for you to come and speak to the court, tell us of your experiences and just be informed.

I expect the county administration and the majority JPs will deny there is even a need for this resolution and to deny that they have problems actually following AFOIA. I also expect the old excuse of, “Oh, we can’t tell other elected officials or staff what to do.” I really hope I’m wrong about that and that this resolution will sail through.

I am very appreciative that JP Rios Stafford is bringing this issue to the court because it is extremely important, especially with Governor Sanders’ attacks on AFOIA and changes made to the law during the special session. FOIA is front and center right now and it’s good that we’re talking about it, especially calling on the county to do better.

I’ve struggled with transparency at the County level for years as both a private citizen as an elected county official. As early as 2019 when Sarah Moore and I sat down to discuss FOIA issues with the former County Judge, Joseph Wood, I asked him what I should do if the county didn’t abide by FOIA. His response, “sue the county.” I told him I didn’t want to do that and cost the taxpayers money. His response: “Do you think I care about that?” Later, under oath, Judge Wood said he did not recall saying that, or did not recall that conversation. Julie Harris, his assistant, also testified that he did not say that. Sarah Moore and I contradicted their statements under oath at the trial in December. The trial I won…

This was just the beginning of an ongoing struggle with WC Officials for the government to provide transparency.

Looking for a play by play of the issues I’ve had with WC in the last year? Here are several accounts of their failure to abide by the AFOIA.

  • County stopped posting Jobs Evaluation Salary Administration Program (JESAP) meetings online beginning in August 2021.

  • County Attorney Lester admitted in an email last summer that JESAP meetings were “public meetings” then stated during trial that he had “changed his mind” and they were not public meetings. The court found they were and are public meetings. He also admitted that he couldn’t find an ordinance that even created JESAP.

  • When I asked for notice of JESAP meetings, the county refused to provide notice until I filed and won my lawsuit Coger v. Wood Etal which specifically found JESAP meetings are public meetings and they must be recorded and the public must be notified.

  • In October 2022, the county failed to provide certain public documents I requested from two employees (Burchett and Reynolds) until after I filed the above lawsuit. Then the county’s attorney tried to say they had furnished the documents and I just hadn’t picked them up. Evidence shows they were created eight days after I filed suit.

  • The county IT Director (now former) Sidney Reynolds testified at trial that he prepared his and HR Director Patty Burchett’s responses to my request on two different occasions and took them on a thumb drive to Lester’s office on the Fifth Floor. Lester admitted during trial that he could find no evidence that I had been notified they were ready.

  • The thumb drive that was delivered to me after I filed the lawsuit showed the documents were created on 11/18/22 eight days after I filed the lawsuit.

  • Just seventeen days after the judgment was filed in Coger v. Wood Etal, the county again violated AFOIA by conducting a CJCC subcommittee meeting on 2/7/23 where the public was not allowed to attend. I and two other people told the county if they proceeded with that meeting, they would be violating AFOIA. They went ahead with the closed meeting anyway.

  • Three days later, during a phone call with Judge Deakins, he asked me to help him make the CJCC meetings private. I told him that was a hill I was willing to die on. He admitted during sworn testimony at trial that he made that statement. Coger v. Deakins. Copies of the trial transcript will be available soon as the county has already filed the Notice of Appeal in this case and their attorney has ordered the transcript.

  • Just three days after that on 2/13/23, the county CJCC coordinator informed me that they were again having a subcommittee meeting that day and the public would not be able to attend because “Zoom no longer supported webinar.”

  • Upon receiving that notice, I contacted Judge Deakins and asked him to intervene. Here’s that exchange. And here.

  • The 2/13/23 meeting was only canceled after I wrote Prosecuting Attorney Matt Durrett and asked him to intervene or I would be pursuing criminal charges under AFOIA. Here is Prosecutor Durrett’s kind response to my request.

  • I firmly believe that if I had not written the prosecutor advising of my intent to pursue criminal charges (certain violations of AFOIA are Class C misdemeanors), the meeting of 2/13/23 would have been held and it would have been closed to the public. If I had pursued criminal charges, the matter would have been resolved by a special prosecutor.

  • On 7/18/23 I submitted a records request to County Attorney Lester and asked for copies of certain emails from him to other elected officials and after some back and forth, I narrowed my request to cover the time period 6/1/2022 to date. Mr. Lester did furnish me a thumb drive with emails but stated that all his emails for 2022 had disappeared and he didn’t know what happened to them. This should be a major concern for the county that attorney emails are just “disappearing.”

We need our local government to do better. We can't do that without holding them accountable. Help me hold them accountable by showing up and speaking up!

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