as published in the Blytheville Courier News on Thursday, October 22, 2015
By TOM HENRY
Blytheville’s city government has a public relations problem.
Blytheville citizens simply do not trust their city government. The Mayor and City Council need to make a massive effort at rebuilding trust by becoming a lot more open and forthright. This column is for all to read, but it is addressed particularly to the Mayor and Blytheville City Council.
Honestly, I personally like each of you. From a personal point of view, I enjoy visiting with each of you, without exception.
But from a professional point of view, we need to discuss perceptions regarding transparency.
The old saying, “perception is reality,” is absolutely true (especially in politics and governance).
Each of you, if you are honest, knows that there is a cataclysmic problem when it comes to trust. The public doesn’t trust you, and you don’t trust them enough to always tell them the whole truth.
Mr. Mayor, I quoted you in the Friday, Oct. 16 edition of the CN saying, “This administration has been one of the most educated and open administrations that I’ve ever seen.” On that same day, Councilman R. L. Jones said, “nobody is trying to mislead nobody.”
Councilman Stan Parks said, “We are not misinforming citizens and I don’t know where he came up with that,” and Councilman John Musgraves said, “we are not misinforming anyone.”
That is not the “whole truth.” You have not told the public or the press about what certainly appears to be numerous private meetings held in the Mayor’s office, and attended by multiple members of our city’s governing body.
I was informed, in a conversation with one city leader, that numerous private meetings have been held involving multiple council members and/or the Mayor (without invitation or notice being given to the media or public). That allegation was also confirmed in a conversation I had with yet another city leader.
Additionally, I have on multiple occasions, including on Tuesday, Oct. 20 before the regular City Council meeting, witnessed multiple councilmen enter the Mayor’s Office at the same time other councilmen were still there.
On Oct. 9, the CN reported that Mayor Sanders called the Arkansas Municipal League (AML) for a legal opinion on whether or not the press had to be admitted to a meeting between sanitation workers and himself. At that time, while on speakerphone and in the presence of this reporter, AML Executive Director Don Zimmerman asked if Sanders was the only government official present for the meeting. He was told that Councilman R. L. Jones was also present.
Upon hearing that information, Zimmerman said that it could be argued that it was a government body meeting and that the press could be allowed in. Sanders thanked Zimmerman and then admitted me into the meeting.
The Arkansas Freedom of Information Handbook (Edition 16 from February 2014) on page 12 states that with the exception of a portion of a meeting (dealing exclusively with personnel issues), “all meetings, formal or informal, special or regular, of the governing bodies of all municipalities… shall be public meetings.”
It goes on further to say, “In the event of emergency or special meetings, the person calling the meeting shall notify the representatives of the newspapers” and other media within the county of the time, place and date of the meetings with “at least two (2) hours before the meeting takes place in order that the public shall have representatives at the meeting.”
Your “impromptu” meetings between multiple councilmen and/or the Mayor are not executive sessions, which are the only type of meeting that the media can be excluded from, because “the specific purpose of the executive session shall be announced in public before going into executive session.”
You can’t exclude the media, or the required notice of the media, saying that it is because of legal matters. Page 20 states, “There exists no provision of law which “specifically” exempts meetings between the city council and the city attorney from the coverage of the FOIA.”
It matters not whether or not there is less than a quorum of members in these meetings, because number 18, on page 21, states, “A group meeting of the members of a city council, even if less than a quorum, is subject to the FOIA if members of the council discuss or take action on any matter on which foreseeable city council action will be taken,” and “the act covers informal unofficial group meetings for the discussion of governmental business.”
So, what then is a meeting? Page 26 states, “Any meeting, formal or informal, regular or special, of a governing body including sub-bodies. A quorum of the governing body need not be present for the meeting to be subject to the FOIA. If two members meet informally to discuss past or pending business, that meeting may be subject to the FOIA.”
You also can’t say that you are allowed to meet together in private immediately before or after an announced public meeting. Because page 37 tells us that the mayor is also “included in the governing body for purposes of the FOIA.” It goes on further to say that it is a possible violation of FOIA “if two city council members meet to discuss matters on which foreseeable action will be taken” and that it is “most likely to occur if the two members meet with other individuals concerning matters on which the whole governing body will foreseeably act.”
Also, “a violation may also occur in the event successive meetings of two members are held prior to action by the governing body, thereby avoiding public discussion.”
If it is forbidden and illegal between two council members, how much more so when more than two members and/or a Mayor are involved?
Even the Arkansas Municipal League Guidebook for Mayors and Council Members states, “All meetings of municipal governing bodies are required to be open to the public (ACA § 25-19-106). Because meetings “shall be public,” any person may attend. A quorum of the governing body need not be present for the meeting to be subject to FOIA. For regular city council or other regular city meetings (water and sewer, planning and zoning, parks and recreation and others), notice must be furnished to anyone who requests that information. For emergency or special called meetings, at least two hours’ notice must be provided to any news media which have requested to be notified of emergency or special meetings.”
The guidebook also states, “Municipal officials who negligently violate the FOI Act may be penalized by a fine of $200 or 30 days in jail or both. In addition, citizens may sue for violations of the Act and, if successful, recover their attorneys’ fees.”
Page 27 of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act Handbook states that it is a Class C misdemeanor.
Back room meetings are not the only problem. Increasingly in committee meetings, there is a disturbing practice of speaking in “weasel words” such as “this,” “that,” “the thing,” etcetera, rather than speaking in complete sentences for the public and media to understand.
This practice is occurring in addition to increasingly simply pointing to a piece of paper to answer, rather than answering out loud for the public and media to hear and comprehend what is being said.
Lastly, I am requesting that the committees, by standard operating procedure, give members of the media a copy of everything that the council members receive, unless forbidden by law. That would allow the media and the public it serves to know what the heck you are talking about.
Your willingness, as a governing body, to address these complaints by not only complying with the letter of the law, but also the spirit of the law, will go a long way toward repairing the breach of our trust in you.