Riff Raff: Opaque transparency

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 600 views 

One might think dissolution of a public organization that has since 1997 been a key actor in the development of Chaffee Crossing – the most impactful growth area of the Fort Smith metro in almost 30 years – should be conducted out in the open. Daniel Mann doesn’t think so.

Mann is executive director of the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority (FCRA). The FCRA is a “public trust” created in 1997 to oversee development of more than 7,000 acres the U.S. Army peeled off Fort Chaffee and returned to the communities – specifically, the four “beneficiary” governments of Sebastian County and the cities of Barling, Fort Smith and Greenwood.

Many believe it is time for the FCRA to wind down and close the books on what has been a successful venture. The four beneficiary governments have passed resolutions calling for such, with several asking for the FCRA to close no later than Dec. 31, 2025. I’ve outlined here the need for all parties to soon craft a “practical, responsible dissolution solution.”

What might be the first meeting of all parties is tentatively set for June 10. A private meeting of just the four beneficiaries was held April 29. After learning about that private meeting, Talk Business & Politics (TBP) asked to attend all dissolution meetings so we could inform the public about this historic and important process. All beneficiary governments agreed. But not Mann. There is a need, he says, to “establish a framework for discussions” before media attendance is allowed. It seems he wants to figure out how the public’s business should be discussed before the public’s business is discussed in public.

What follows is the email exchange with Mann asking why he objects to media attendance at dissolution meetings. (Email content has been edited only to remove two parenthetical notes and to add a link to a May 24 TBP story.)

• Email response sent May 29 from Mann to TBP Metro Reporter Tina Dale
On May 9th, I received correspondence from the City of Fort Smith Administrator the majority of the Beneficiaries agreed to have TB&P present during FCRA meetings with the four Beneficiaries. At this time, it’s in the best interest of the Trust to work in coordination and consultation with its Beneficiaries to discuss the current and future operations of the Trust until such time as the Trustees determines it is in the best interests of the residents of the affected counties and communities to discuss termination, as stated in the unanimously approved Resolution regarding the ongoing operations of the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority.

• Email response from me to Mann on May 29 (This e-mail response was my effort to better understand Mann’s “best interests” theory.)
Mr. Mann:
Your response to Tina about why you don’t want the media at dissolution meetings is a non-answer. Want to offer the courtesy of one more attempt to receive a discernible answer as to why the FCRA does not want the media to attend such meetings.

• Email response from Mann to me on May 30
The Administrator for the City of Fort Smith previously organized several private meetings amongst the beneficiaries that media was not invited to attend.  The FCRA was not welcome at those meetings, either.  As a result of those closed-door meetings, the beneficiaries have apparently agreed upon a list of demands to present to the FCRA.  Curiously, the majority of those beneficiaries have decided to the first time to invite the media to attend one of their meetings and it just so happens to be the meeting where they will present their pre-determined demands to the FCRA.  It is telling that (1) the majority of the beneficiaries now invite the media to attend after doing all of their heavy-lifting behind closed doors, and (2) that Talk Business & Politics did not seek to attend the previous closed-door meetings or hold the beneficiaries accountable for those meetings.

The FCRA wishes only to be afforded the same setting as the beneficiaries’ previous meetings, where they met in private without inviting the FCRA.  Once the beneficiaries and the FCRA have collectively made progress on current and future operations, the media should then be welcome to attend.

Until then, Talk Business & Politics should be asking “why now” the City of Fort Smith wants the media at the meeting, when they previously did not.  The answer is clear.  The FCRA seeks only equal treatment and the opportunity to have frank and honest conversations like the beneficiaries previously enjoyed without the FCRA’s presence.

• Email response by me to Mann on May 30
The entire premise of your response is incorrect, and your subsequent reasoning based on allegations of nefarious actions by others is baffling, if not troubling.

TBP was not “invited” by the beneficiaries, and the “why now” is because we requested to attend the meetings after learning about the first meeting of the beneficiaries. We noted this request in our story of May 24 about your rejection of media attendance. That story included the following paragraph that was an excerpt from our request.

“We certainly understand that such meetings are not a quorum of any public body, and we do not have rights to attend under Arkansas’ Freedom of Information Act,” Tilley said in the note to Geffken. “However, the FCRA is a ‘public trust,’ and any actions to dissolve the trust will have an impact on local governments, and area residents should have information about potential impacts – good, bad, or otherwise – on their local government(s). Ideally, process transparency would not only be welcome but considered good governance.”

Previous actions/decisions/affronts by and/or between the FCRA and the beneficiaries should have nothing to do with what is now a new effort by all parties to discuss dissolution of a public trust.

Your responses are also disappointing considering our lengthy meeting on 2 APR in which you and Mr. Gibson expressed a desire to work with all parties and be professional in the process.

TBP believes it is in the public’s interest for such meetings to be transparent. The simple question for you is, Do you believe the meetings should be transparent, and if not, why not?

• Email response from Mann to me on May 31
Of course we want to be transparent. We are simple asking to have a few initial meetings to establish a framework for discussions. Moving forward I do not see any issues involving the media. In the meantime, we will be updating the Trustees at our monthly meetings as I assume the other governing bodies will do the same.