Airport commission focuses on FOIA

Tuesday, September 7, 2010 ~ Updated 10:24 AM

CARROLL COUNTY -- The Carroll County Airport Commission devoted much of Thursday's meeting to a discussion of Arkansas' Freedom of Information Act.

Commissioner Scott Link had expressed concern during an exchange of emails among members of the commission June 24.

The commission had received approval of a grant to build a new terminal. However, the grant money would not arrive until a percentage of the construction was finished, and Chairman Dave Teigen sent emails to the other commissioners asking for authorization to investigate a temporary line of credit to pay contractors until the grant money could arrive.

At the time, Teigen explained that time was critical. He also pointed out the difficulties of getting the commissioners together physically on short notice.

The commissioners gave their approval by return email, with Link objecting to the process and voting no.

All the emails were copied to Carroll County News, which has almost always been the only media outlet covering commission meetings in recent years.

Prosecuting Attorney Tony Rogers, who provides legal counsel to the county, attended the meeting. He had been contacted by Albena Link, wife of Scott Link and a former justice of the peace from District 2. Rogers called Teigen the day before the meeting, and Teigen invited him to attend and help answer questions.

Albena Link said she had received opinions from the office of the Arkansas attorney general and the Bureau of Legislative Research saying a commission must notify the press and public before holding a special meeting.

She said emails could be sent for informational purposes, but not for decisions.

In response, Teigen said, "As chairman, I've done everything in my power to make this commission transparent. Anyone can be on the email list."

Teigen noted that interested media had seen all the email traffic, and copies of the emails were physically filed at the courthouse along with other meeting minutes.

He explained the circumstances requiring a quick response, and said, "This has not been, nor will it be, a standard practice."

Rogers said case law relating to "virtual" or electronic meetings has been sketchy. Meetings by telephone have been covered more clearly, he explained, giving an example of a situation in which a chairman called individual members of a commission by phone to poll their votes on an issue.

That was ruled to be a violation of the FOIA, although the court said if the media and the public had been invited to listen in on a speaker phone, the procedure would have satisfied the requirements of the law.

For an electronic meeting, an ideal situation would involve a website on which the public could follow all communications between commissioners, with some method for commenting.

"A reasonable opportunity to comment does not mean they could participate in the discussion," Rogers said.

He also suggested contacting local radio stations and other media outlets, even those who have not expressed specific interest in receiving notice of special meetings.

Rogers further explained that a member of a commission could send an email to another member concerning airport business without a violation. That email should be saved, however, because it could still be subject to disclosure under the provisions of the FOIA.

Although the law is vague concerning what would constitute an illegal back-and-forth exchange of emails, Rogers said, "Circular emails could be a violation (of the FOIA), suggesting deliberation in secret."

Scott Link moved to amend the bylaws to require all meetings to be held in person. Other commissioners argued in favor of leaving some flexibility for unusual circumstances. A committee will be formed to recommend future commission policy.

In other business:

* Construction of a south runway ramp can now proceed, following a new survey. The project will take three to four weeks once it is begun.

* Contractors hope to pour concrete Tuesday for the new terminal building, and the commissioners expect to see the structure begin emerging from the ground in a week.

* Although she had only served as a commissioner for three months, Mary Nelson resigned for personal reasons. She was replaced by Lloyd Jones, who had applied for a vacant seat on the commission at the same time as Nelson.

* The commissioners voted to draft a contract which would allow someone interested in building a new hangar to provide a lump-sum down payment in lieu of rent. The lessee's down payment would be used as the local matching funds to receive an 80/20 grant. Each $100 in the down payment would pre-pay a month's lease payment, and after 150 months, the commission and the lessee would negotiate continuing lease payments based on market value.

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