But we're not done yet!
Here’s how the JPs voted: click here. It will be back on the agenda up to 2 more times, with the next reading at the full Quorum Court meeting on 10/19 @ 6pm. We need you to continue to show up and voice your concerns!
You can stream the full meeting here. Discussion for this item starts at 31:24. Give it a watch. For those of you following this court, the responses and discussion will not surprise you.
I want to give a huge thanks to all the concerned citizens who came out and spoke against the ordinance. It was very exciting for me to hear how informed and involved the community is in this matter. They want our government to abide by the law!
My colleague and fellow JP Evelyn Rios Stafford (starting at 40:50 in video) makes some great points. “... let's step back from that and look at the big picture. The big picture is what message are we sending to the citizens of this County that we're willing to fight to keep government meetings closed from the public.”
“Protecting the people doesn’t mean protecting the people on the top floor of this building.”
As a reminder: WC has already spent over $10,000 on litigation expenses to employ outside attorneys to handle two Arkansas Freedom of Information Act (AFOIA) cases I have won against the county and the county attorney wants to spend $20,000 MORE for just the remainder of 2023.
Two separate circuit judges heard testimony, reviewed evidence, and ruled that Washington County violated the AFOIA totaling $6,487.02. Now, the County Attorney, whose budget has grown 49% in the past five years, is asking for an additional $20,000 just for the remainder of 2023 for these two cases.
So, we, the taxpayers, are paying $30,000 this year because the county has failed (refused?) to abide by the AFOIA. We need to continue to hold our elected representatives accountable on matters as important as transparency and access to public meetings.
Some of the statements made by County Judge Deakins at Thursday’s meeting with my responses:
Deakins: (Starting at 48:13 in video)”...the issue that we see in these lawsuits is the bottomless pit this will create. We want this defined. We want the judge - we want a court system to define what the limitations and barriers of this are and if we do not have those we cannot operate correctly as a county and we cannot see the end of these lawsuits.”
He offers no facts, no data as to this “bottomless pit”, and, I would point out that the judges and court systems have already defined “limitations and barriers” of our wonderful AFOIA many times by the Arkansas Supreme Court and Court of Appeals. I think what he’s actually saying is he wants a judge/court system to say what he wants to hear, not what the law actually is. Ask Judge Deakins how many other FOIA lawsuits are pending against the county right now (not counting my two)? Find out how deep that bottomless pit really is.
Deakins: 48:45…”as with anything in life there can be bad actors and this can be weaponized and this can be made a negative thing.”
Hmm, I believe the “bad actor” to whom he’s referring to is, obviously, me, because I dare to challenge someone I’m not supposed to challenge. What’s weaponized is the county’s complete incompetence in being unable to abide by the AFOIA.
Deakins 49:27…”um there are a lot of eyes statewide. They're looking at this situation making sure we get something that's very defined to come out of this court case so that we know how to operate underneath FOIA moving forward…”
Well, he’s right that eyes statewide are on AFOIA right now and that does highlight the problem here in Washington County and its refusal/inability to abide by the law.
Will the county’s appeal of these two lawsuits cause other citizens to hesitate to even submit AFOIA requests, fearing that if the county doesn’t comply, there’s nothing they can do about it. What are their options? File suit, win, and then have the county take the case to the appellate courts? That’s an impossible hurdle for most citizens (even the filing of a lawsuit). I believe that’s what our county government is banking on.
How can you help? I’m calling all my followers to write Brian Lester, our county attorney at email@example.com and ask:
“Mr. Lester, you represented the county in the second lawsuit Coger v. Deakins (the only one being appealed at this point), and I’ve been told that during that trial you admitted the county was wrong to close the CJCC meeting of 2/7/23 which is the subject of that lawsuit. What justification do you now have to spend more taxpayer dollars to appeal a case where you’ve already said (in a court of law to a circuit judge) that the county was at fault?”
OR “Mr. Lester, you were not a party or a witness to the Coger v. Deakins case. Why aren’t you handling the appeal instead of paying $20K to outside attorneys to do that work?”
Please also show up to the next full Quorum Court meeting on 10/19 @ 6pm.
Just a friendly reminder: we pay Brian Lester $119,000 + excellent benefits and yet he can’t handle an appeal? What are we paying him for?