The standard practice at Sebastian County Quorum Court meetings since 1977 has been to take care of business, including votes, prior to allowing public comment at the end of the meeting. But one member of the Court is trying to change the county's public comment policy in order to allow more involvement in the county's legislative decisions.
Justice of the Peace Danny Aldridge requested that Prosecuting Attorney Dan Shue, who serves as the Quorum Court's legal counsel, provide a legal interpretation of the Arkansas law that defines how public comment is to be conducted at public meetings.
"In any meeting required to be open to the public, the county quorum court, committee, board, or other entity shall adopt rules for conducting the meeting which afford citizens a reasonable opportunity to participate prior to the final decision," the law reads.
Aldridge said he was told by Shue that the Court could "basically do what we wanted to as long as we had public input."
Matt Campbell, a former researcher and staff attorney for the Arkansas Supreme Court and an attorney at Pinnacle Law Firm in Little Rock who focuses on government transparency and public access to information, said his understanding of the law was similar to what Aldridge said he was told by Shue.
"Not under the statute, it's not (legal)” to only allow public input after votes are taken, he said.
He said holding off on public comment until the end of Quorum Court meetings, after all votes have been cast and the public cannot attempt to persuade the votes of Court members, was not what the law intended.
"Section 14-14-109(b) clearly anticipates that whatever rules a quorum court adopts, they will give people 'a reasonable opportunity to participate prior to the final decision.' The Arkansas Supreme Court has said for decades that, where a statute is enacted for the public benefit, it will be interpreted in the manner most favorable to the public," Campbell said. "With that in mind, I can't see how restricting public comment until all the voting is done even comes close to satisfying the 'prior to the final decision' language of the statute."
Shue said after a review of the law, it was fairly "straight forward, what needed to be done," adding that the Quorum Court now has to fix the procedure that has been in place since Jimmy Carter was in the White House.
"It makes it clear, the public should be able to make a comment before the end (of a meeting),” Shue said.
Aldridge said since the Quorum Court gets to decide what to do with regard to public comment, he would like to have meetings function similar to how the city of Fort Smith conducts its twice-monthly Board of Directors meetings.
"If you go to city directors meeting, you have a table that has two sheets – one addressing any items on the agenda and one to address the Board at the end of the meeting."
Each vote taken by the city Board takes place after the Mayor asks whether members of the public have asked to speak on the proposed ordinance, resolution or other legislation.
"But people have had a chance (to speak) before the vote is taken. They've heard everybody's input and logic on it, so they can decide whether they want to speak or not," Aldridge said. "Right now when you go to a Quorum Court meeting, there's not even an agenda for people to know what we're talking about, much less a sheet to sign up (to speak)."
While Aldridge said he is in support of a changing the county's rules in favor of public comment on each and every item of business, he knows that others are simply in favor of moving the public comment to the beginning of meetings, before votes are cast.
County Judge David Hudson is one of those.
"I recommended that we move it from the end of the meeting to the beginning of the meeting. I have drafted an ordinance to implement just that."
Hudson said he was not familiar with Fort Smith's procedure, though he said he would "defer to the judgment of the Quorum Court on what they want to do with that. It's not a major issue with me. I'll study how the city does that. I haven't done that at this point."
Aldridge said the vote on Hudson's ordinance will take place at the Court's regular Aug. 20 meeting.
"We'll definitely make a change," he said. "But what the change will be will depend on whether the judge (County Judge David Hudson) wants to do it and what the law calls for."
Either way, Aldridge said moving the public comment to a different place in the meeting is the right thing to do for constituents.
"I have had a couple of constituents who have brought it up and said by having it at the end of the meeting, it was rushed and they didn't have a chance to provide input."