Talk Business & Politics Editorial: Still breaking the law in Fort Smith

by Talk Business & Politics staff ([email protected]) 1,711 views 

Yet again, city of Fort Smith officials make it clear they have no respect for the rule of law, no interest in conducting the public’s business in public, and certainly no courtesy toward the media who try to ensure the public’s business is conducted in public.

Talk Business & Politics on Monday (Nov. 9) asked the city and the Fort Smith A&P Commission for applications and/or resumes for the finalists seeking the A&P executive director job. To be sure, the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requires that such public records be provided more or less immediately upon request. Also, the Arkansas Attorney General has “opined on numerous occasions that job applications, including resumes, are ‘public records’ subject to inspection and photocopying, provided that all exempt information has first been deleted.”

Law don’t matter. An employed city official let us know they had the documents but would not provide them. An elected city official told us they didn’t initially have the documents in a form they could send us. Two different stories. Not only does the law not matter, but having a consistent lie to avoid complying with the law isn’t important to the city.

Perplexing is that the law hasn’t mattered for years. City mayors, administrators and board members come and go, but consistent is the city’s pattern of behaving as if you the public aren’t important, necessary, or are too dumb to be trusted with the truth. In this matter, we are disappointed in Mayor George McGill, who told us prior to his being elected he would reverse the city’s pattern of disdain for the state’s Freedom of Information Act. Mayor McGill serves as the chairman of the A&P Commission.

This is a pattern. We could begin in 2004 with Harris v. Fort Smith. The city tried to skirt open meeting rules when buying a piece of downtown property. City resident David Harris sued. The case ultimately ended up in the Arkansas Supreme Court. Harris won.

We’ve had little to no transparency on more than six years of conversations with federal officials on a $400 million – if not more – consent decree that has resulted in dramatically increased fees for city residents and businesses. It’s none of your business, we know better than you and we’ll let you know what we want you to know, but be prepared to pay up.

Remember when the city for months ran recycling routes but was taking materials to the landfill. If it weren’t for a Clarksville business owner spilling the beans we may not have ever learned the full extent of the deception. The city fired the sanitation director to protect city officials responsible for initiating the deception.

A few years ago former Mayor Sandy Sanders and the Fort Smith Board violated state law by discussing in executive session the job search process after the resignation of City Administrator Ray Gosack.

There was the time city staff asked a consultant to not talk publicly about the true costs of a water park and instead stick with the lower cost until the project was approved. It’s none of your business, we know better than you and we’ll let you know what we want you to know, but be prepared to pay up.

Then there was the time when the city’s auditor held meetings with short notice to the media, no agenda, and no documents related to what was discussed at the meetings. The auditor told Talk Business & Politics there were no documents about a certain meeting in question. However, a city director told Talk Business & Politics he received documents related to the agenda prior to the meeting.

We might also mention the time city staff wanted the Board to quickly approve a groundwater ban so we wouldn’t learn about the cancer-causing pollution Whirlpool left in the ground around its shuttered plant. It may kill you, but it’s still none of your business.

The above are just some of the highlights of efforts to avoid the light of public scrutiny, with several representing clear FOIA violations.

Problem is, the city gets away with it. The Sebastian County Prosecuting Attorney is not interested in holding city officials accountable in any meaningful way. Even if Talk Business & Politics undertook the time and expense to sue the city and win the case, it would most likely result in a slap on the wrist.

It may be time for the public to respond. Citizens might demand that mayoral and city board candidates take a pledge to abide by the FOIA. Or, when the city in a few years again asks citizens to renew taxes for parks and streets, the citizens deliver “No” votes until the city promises to conduct the public’s business in public; to be transparent about money spent, people hired, and policies pursued.

Until then, the city that expects residents to follow rules it sets forth will violate state law with impunity knowing that we citizens are too ignorant or apathetic to demand otherwise.