Fort Smith School Board counters settlement offer in Freedom of Information lawsuit

by Aric Mitchell ([email protected]) 582 views 

The Fort Smith School Board voted to counter a proposed settlement order in the pending Arkansas Freedom of Information Act (AFOIA) lawsuit with plaintiff June Bradshaw at a special meeting Thursday (Feb. 23).

Specifically, the Board voted to strike two of eight items — one for attorney’s fees and the other stating the Board had “apparently agreed upon a tentative slate of officers to be voted on at the next meeting” through emails sent between Oct. 8 and Oct. 13, 2016 — and to delete one sentence from item No. 6 acknowledging AFOIA violation. With the omissions, the Board would agree to undergo AFOIA training, which is scheduled for March 6 at 5:30 p.m.

Board member Talicia Richardson took issue with item No. 2, which implied the Board “apparently agreed” on the slate of officers, stating that Wade Gilkey was the only Board member having done so in the emails.

“Wade, quite frankly, you stated in your email, ‘I vote on this slate (of officers).’ You did that. And with the plaintiff’s attorney (Fort Smith attorney Joey McCutchen) being your friend,” Richardson explained, “I’m fine that that is your admission of guilt regarding this. But if you look at my comments, I did not say anything about terms, about slating of officers. So for me, this is personal. This is not my issue. (Agreed Order Item No. 2) states we all did something, and I disagree with that.”

Board President Dr. Deanie Mehl was also reluctant to accept the item, stating it’s “not being afraid to admit that I was wrong” that was the hangup.

“I will gladly do that. But those emails were public. We were very deliberate in our attempts to make those available to the public by including them in the board packet, the press packet. There were no rules and regulations being discussed, just those officers, and the decision was not made in those emails.”

Mehl was also against Item No. 8 of the order, which calls for the district to provide attorney’s fees to the plaintiff, pointing out that McCutchen, representing Bradshaw, has said “on multiple occasions this is being done pro bono.” She called pursuit of fees under such circumstances “disingenuous,” adding that McCutchen’s pursuit of the lawsuit was “not about transparency,” but “harassment.”

That alleged “harassment,” Mehl and fellow Board member Susan McFerran claim, is aimed at them for their part in spearheading the Southside High School mascot change in 2015. McCutchen opposed the change and has previously pursued legal action against the district on behalf of Bradshaw.

Before the end of Thursday’s meeting, Mehl also riled Board member Bill Hanesworth, who knows McCutchen personally. Hanesworth’s issue stemmed from a comment Mehl made at the beginning of the meeting.

“Fort Smith is a small town. We have a lot of interaction with one another. I know Ms. McFerran is one of my best friends and was before she came on board. When we go to football games with our husbands, we don’t sit together because of the appearance of impropriety,” Mehl said, adding, “I know some of you are good friends with the plaintiff’s attorney, but we really cannot be interacting with him without Mitch (Llewelyn, the district’s attorney) present. I just wanted to make that statement.”

After the vote to counter, Hanesworth spoke up.

“Sometimes it’s inferred that my relationship that I may or may not have with Joey affects my decisions and how I think about issues, and I would appreciate it in the future that any inference like that would not be said,” Hanesworth said. “I will make an independent decision based on what I feel, not based on what somebody else determines I should feel based on my relationships.”

Mehl responded: “I know what I said. I have no idea what you heard. If you thought I was implying that, I apologize. I was simply saying that we need to be careful about talking to the plaintiff’s attorney without Mr. Llewelyn present if it deals with anything pertaining to the lawsuit. I in no way meant anything of the sort and am sorry if you misinterpreted my comments. I wasn’t referring to anyone. It’s a small community. A lot of us have longstanding relationships with people, and it makes it difficult and we have to be extra careful. That’s all I’m saying.”

If Bradshaw and McCutchen accept the Board’s counter, the matter will come to a close. If the offer is rejected, the Board agreed the case should head to trial, which is currently scheduled for May 10.