Editor’s Note: Each year, the Times Record staff selects its top 10 stories of the year. The FOIA lawsuits against the city and the Fort Smith School board were selected as the No. 6 story of the year.
The city of Fort Smith and the Fort Smith School Board were accused of violating the Freedom of Information Act on more than one occasion this year.
In one instance, Sebastian County Circuit Judge Stephen Tabor found the school board to be in violation, calling an email exchange between school board members a “meeting” with no prior notice given to the public as required by FOIA. In October 2016, school board members discussed slates of officers via email before officially electing officers at their regular public meeting.
In a separate lawsuit, the Arkansas Court of Appeals determined in March that the school board did not violate FOIA at a June 2015 meeting when it voted to retire Southside High School’s Rebel mascot and “Dixie” fight song, upholding a ruling by Sebastian County Circuit Judge James Cox that dismissed the lawsuit by June Bradshaw.
Five school board members had an unscheduled discussion about the Rebel mascot and fight song and voted in open session to stop using them. The board later had a final vote at a July meeting. The lawsuit claimed that the board failed to give proper notice of the committee meeting. The law requires that notice of a public meeting be given to the news media and to anyone who requests it. FOIA also does not require that public bodies give notice of what will be discussed at a meeting.
Fort Smith attorney Joey McCutchen was the legal representation for the plaintiffs in both cases.
In June, McCutchen filed a lawsuit on behalf of resident Bruce Wade against the city, alleging city officials violated FOIA by conducting meeting business via email instead of in a public meeting when city directors Andre Good and Mike Lorenz and City Administrator Carl Geffken discussed potential actions the board could take concerning the Civil Service Commission.
The commission had not approved the police chief's request to accept applications from external applicants for supervisor positions.
McCutchen filed another lawsuit against Good, Lorenz and Director Keith Lau when they discussed via email a settlement offer regarding the first lawsuit.
Prosecuting Attorney Dan Shue stated in a letter that he found both email exchanges to be in violation of FOIA and that if this continues, his office and the Sheriff's Office will be compelled to take further action.