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State Supreme Court rules serial phone calls are a meeting

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    News Media Update         ARKANSAS         Freedom of Information    

State Supreme Court rules serial phone calls are a meeting

  • A series of phone calls and personal contacts from a city administrator to individual members of a city directorate violated the state law requiring open meetings, the Arkansas high court ruled last week.

Nov. 11, 2004 — The serial discussions between each director of the City of Fort Smith’s board and the city’s administrator constituted an informal public meeting under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act and should have been public, the Arkansas Supreme Court unanimously ruled last week. A county circuit court had previously ruled that the state’s FOI Act did not apply to “a chance meeting or even a planned meeting of any two members of the city council.” The Supreme Court ruling upheld an April decision by the Arkansas Court of Appeals that reversed the circuit court’s holding.

In 2002, Fort Smith board members each discussed with the city administrator the city’s negotiations for purchase of land that had belonged to the Fort Biscuit Co. The land was originally going to be sold at auction, but the city’s administrator, Bill Harding, determined that acquiring the property through an auction would create unusual challenges that could be avoided by direct negotiation. He received approval through the telephone conversations and was able to purchase the land without revealing publicly the highest amount the city would have been willing to pay for it. However, the discussions circumvented the state’s FOI Act, which covers both open records and open meetings.

David Harris, a Fort Smith resident, sued the city, contending that the telephone and personal conversations involved city business and should have taken place publicly. He also noted that no public notice was given about these one-on-one board meetings.

The court’s ruling “basically says ‘If you’re doing the government’s business, do it in the open,'” Harris told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette .

Even though a deal was reached for the government to make the purchase information public after the fact, the high court said that the negotiation and bidding process must take place in public, according to state law, which requires that both formal and informal meetings of public bodies discussing the public’s business be open.

City Attorney Jerry Canfield told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that a phone call between two people is not considered to be a “meeting”, and that it “is a common practice used by school boards and other government bodies.”

Harris told KHBS and KHOG television stations that governments will now “have to do government business when the people can see what they’re doing.”

(Harris v. City of Fort Smith) EF

© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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