Shared from the 2/10/2018 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette eEdition

Aldermen defied FOI with texts, report finds

Mansfield 3 essentially excluded public

FORT SMITH — The Sebastian County prosecuting attorney issued a report Friday saying he and a sheriff’s office investigation found that Mansfield aldermen violated the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.

Prosecutor Daniel Shue noted in his report that aldermen Sheri Hopkins, Beverly Lyons and Rick McDaniel admitted in a Jan. 29 court order that they had violated the act in text messages they had exchanged regarding transferring duties of Mayor Larry Austin to Clerk/Treasurer Becky Walker.

The aldermen also agreed in the order to undergo training on the Freedom of Information Act.

“No charges will be filed with regard to this incident,” Shue wrote in the report addressed to Mansfield City Attorney Matt Ketcham. “If any future violations like this occur, then appropriate law enforcement action will be taken.”

Contacted Friday, Lyons said the aldermen were told to refer requests for comment to Ketcham.

The report grew out of a complaint Fort Smith attorney Joey McCutchen made to Shue about the aldermen’s texting. McCutchen filed a lawsuit against the aldermen and the city of Mansfield on behalf of Austin.

The lawsuit contended aldermen conducted city business through the text messages and that it constituted an informal meeting that violated the open meetings section of the Freedom of Information Act.

The City Council voted in December to transfer certain duties of the mayor, mostly personnel, to Walker.

Aldermen had complained that Austin was micro-managing the city’s employees and driving many away. They also accused the mayor of moving too slowly to fix the city’s damaged water tower, which resulted in a boil order in December that lasted 21 days.

The mayor vetoed the council’s action, but Walker said Friday that the council overrode the mayor’s veto at its Jan. 18 meeting.

The admission of the three aldermen that they violated the act closed the Freedom of Information complaint, Ketcham said Friday.

In the lawsuit, Austin also asked a judge to stop the City Council from attempting to remove his statutory duties as mayor, court records showed. That issue remains to be resolved, Ketcham said.

After receiving McCutchen’s complaint about the aldermen’s text messages, Shue asked the Sebastian County sheriff’s office to investigate, according to the report. Shue wrote that sheriff’s Capt. Philip Pevehouse found that Mansfield city business was discussed and a decision was made.

“In light of the statute and in court decisions, a meeting took place on the group text and the public was not invited,” Shue quoted from Pevehouse’s report. “Only seven elected officials were privy to the discussions and debate.”

Shue’s report cited three lawsuits that had been filed against the city of Fort Smith and the Fort Smith School Board by citizens represented by McCutchen where judges have found those entities violated the Freedom of Information Act by elected officials discussing their business by electronic communications.

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