I believe very strongly that government should be transparent, at every level. Citizens have a right to know what is going on with their government, and public business should be conducted in public view.
That’s not just my personal feeling. In Arkansas, it’s the law. The Arkansas Freedom of Information Act requires that meetings of public bodies be open to the public. The law does allow those public bodies to hold “executive sessions” behind closed doors to discuss specific issues — namely, the “employment, appointment, promotion, demotion, disciplining, or resignation of any public officer or employee.” The law also says, however, that the public body must declare a specific reason for an executive session.
It’s that last part that has troubled me for the better part of a year in regard to the Eureka Springs city government. I’ve complained to city officials, I’ve filed an official complaint with the prosecuting attorney, and I’ve written about FOIA violations committed by city commissions in Eureka Springs.
The most heinous violation, in my opinion, occurred in January when the Eureka Springs City Advertising and Promotion Commission went into executive session to “discuss personnel,” according to chair Carol Wright.
We later discovered — through emails obtained via an FOIA request — that Wright’s real purpose in calling the executive session was to allow the commission to privately discuss how to respond to a news report she didn’t like.
More recently, both the Eureka Springs Hospital Commission and the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission have held multiple executive sessions without citing a specific reason, despite our continuing attempts to inform them about the FOIA’s requirements.
What’s really behind the hospital commission’s decision to withdraw from a management contract for the second time this year? We don’t know, because that discussion was held in private, even though it had nothing to do with an individual employee. Terminating a contract is not a “personnel issue.”
What’s really behind the parks commission’s decision to terminate director Justin Huss? We don’t know, because no public discussion or vote has ever been held — although the commission has spent more than two hours in executive session in the past month. If it was a commission decision to fire Huss, that decision should have been voted on in open session — another requirement of the FOIA. Or was the decision made by commission chair Ruth Hager or mayor Butch Berry? Do either have the autonomy to make such a decision?
I spoke briefly about the FOIA with Kim Stryker, Berry’s assistant, after the Oct. 7 parks meeting. We disagreed about the requirements regarding executive session, so I emailed Stryker and Berry the following day to outline my position and also contacted prosecuting attorney Tony Rogers.
Frankly, city commissions in Eureka Springs have repeatedly broken state law, and my conversation with Stryker led me to believe they’ve done so with either the tacit or explicit blessing of the mayor’s office.
Berry replied the following day to say that my “interpretation may be correct.” He then emailed all city commission members to inform them of the FOIA requirements. Of course, that doesn’t mean those requirements will be satisfied and it doesn’t change the fact that the public has already been denied several opportunities to know what’s actually going on.
I won’t be getting a Christmas card from Mayor Berry this year. He’s clearly not happy that I continue to insist that Eureka Springs city government follow the law.
But my job isn’t to make friends with elected officials. My job is to keep the residents of Carroll County informed about what’s going on with their government and how their tax dollars are being spent. That’s a huge part of our mission as journalists, and we will fulfill that mission.
Clearly, there is some significant dysfunction involved in Eureka Springs city government — even if much of it happens behind closed doors. We will continue to do everything we can to bring that dysfunction to light and to ensure that public business is conducted in public view — no matter who doesn’t like it.