The Sebastian County Quorum Court ran into problems Tuesday night (Sept. 16) due to a request by County Judge David Hudson to meet with individual justices of the peace individually to discuss budget priorities prior to the start of the annual budget hearings, with the prosecuting attorney saying the meetings could violate the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.
In a separate meeting Tuesday, the Fort Smith Board of Directors approved the waiving of building permit fees for the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education, saving the institution more than $63,000 on the construction of a multi-million campus at Chaffee Crossing.
In Sebastian County, Justice of the Peace Linda Murry questioned a letter attached to individual meeting packets distributed to members of the Quorum Court in which Hudson requested individual meetings to discuss the 2015 budget.
"In order to have a focused discussion concerning 2015 budget planning, I would like to meet with each Quorum Court member individually at a mutually convenient time," Hudson wrote. "The purpose of this individual meeting is to receive your input and perspective on 2015 budget planning and further discuss the budget issues.”
Murry raised two points, the first being that she would like any meetings to be "committee of the whole" meetings so she and other justices could hear the input of the entire court regarding budget priorities. She also questioned whether an Attorney General's opinion was needed to determine if the meetings were within the letter of the law.
Sebastian County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Shue, who serves as legal counsel to the court, said he had not yet seen the letter Murry was referencing but advised against the individual meetings. Reviewing a copy of the letter following Tuesday's meeting, Shue said his advice would remain the same.
"I've done this in the past, but there have been a lot of FOI business and maybe it's not appropriate. I don't know," Hudson said in response to the issue being raised.
Shue said one of the issues with the individual meetings is whether the opinions of the individual Quorum Court members could be influenced through the meetings with Hudson even though he said the meetings are purely informational in nature. He said if opinions started being expressed or ascertained, it could constitute polling of the court which is a violation of the FOIA.
Justice of the Peace Danny Aldridge asked whether there was a legal definition of polling that Shue could provide the court.
"The problem is if you go too far, then it's a polling situation. It's one of those things that (information presented or discussed) convinces you, but (another justice) never gets to hear it. The thing that convinced you, she never gets to hear. So I think that's the point. Information should be just that, information, not exchange of ideas.”
The letter in question was not included in meeting packets provided to the media, but was provided upon request. Jeanne Wright, executive assistant to Hudson, said the letters were originally set to be mailed to justices, but were delivered taped to the packets instead to save on postage, explaining why the letter was not originally provided to the media.
Hudson withdrew his request for one-on-one meetings with individual justices following the discussion between the court and Shue.
In other business, the court tabled until next month the request of Treasurer/Collector Judith Miller to increase her pay and provide backpay for her years in office tied to the additional responsibilities of serving in two positions. A letter she said states salary minimums and maximums statewide for the positions was requested for distribution to the court, as well as a legal opinion from Shue on whether she is entitled to a raise of more than $3,400 starting with the 2015 fiscal year, was requested by October's regularly scheduled meeting.
It was also announced during Tuesday's meeting that the court would be going all electronic for meeting packets starting in October. For Tuesday's meeting, Hudson said only 20 packets were printed instead of the normal 60. At 158 pages each for Tuesday's meeting, the county would have saved 6,320 sheets of paper, as well as undisclosed costs for printing.
FORT SMITH ACTION
At the city of Fort Smith, the Board waved $63,500 in fees tied to the construction of the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education, which will house the Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine at Chaffee Crossing. According to a memo written by City Administrator Ray Gosack, the fees include $50,000 for building permits and inspections, $13,050 for sewer ties on fees, $350 for a planning/zoning application and $100 for a grading permit.
"In the past, the city has waived fees for similar developments which have significant job creation and investment," he wrote.
Thomas Webb, executive director of The Degen Foundation – the organization providing much of the funding for the new medical school – said in his letter to Gosack requesting the waiver that the school would employ 80 to 90 employees including several doctors of osteopathic medicine and Ph.D.'s with an average annual salary of $100,000. He also noted that the school's economic impact upon completion and once fully operational was expected to be $100 million annually.
"While this remains a mission driven plan, we continue to enlist the help and assistance of those who see this as a true game changer for our area," Webb wrote.
Construction of the first $31 million building to house the osteopathic school, administrative offices and possibly a future physicians assistant school was scheduled to let bids Monday (Sept. 15), with an expected construction completion by April 2016.
If accredited as expected, the school plans to begin its first classes in August 2016.