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With the Arkansas FOIA violation by the Mountain Home Public School’s Board of Education now in the light, I thought it prudent to address the gravity of the situation.
When a governing body conducts meetings out of the view of the public, or in secret, it’s bad business for all.
Tell someone to define a “meeting”, though, and you might get six different answers. Arkansas defines a meeting as “any meeting, formal or informal, regular or special, of a governing body including sub-bodies. A quorum of the governing body need not be present for the meeting to be subject to the FOIA. If two members meet informally to discuss past or pending business, that meeting may be subject to the FOIA. This question will turn on the facts of each case.”
If school board member ‘A’ calls or texts school board member ‘B’ this may qualify as a meeting if discussion is around any sort of school business.
FOIA does address social situations, which are clearly unavoidable in Mountain Home.
Upon joining this community in 2021, it was obvious to me that some of the same groups of people attend various functions, charity banquets, and meetings. I’ve already witnessed several local functions in which this scenario occurs where elected officials of a particular body run into each other.
It becomes even weirder when members of a governing body own customer-facing businesses where other members of said body may frequent because they merely want great service.
For social gatherings, they are not subject to FOIA, “as long as any discussion of government business is only intermittent and incidental to the social function. But any regular gathering of members of a governing body demands close scrutiny.” (Op. Att’y Gen. 95-020)
And close scrutiny of these regular gatherings (read: group chat) we demand indeed!
A violation of FOIA needs to be taken very seriously. A person who “negligently violates” the FOIA is guilty of a Class C misdemeanor.
I do not view a group SMS or text message chat, a telephone conference, or a group e-mail chain with nearly all members of a governing body as a social gathering.
It was difficult to read our MH public schools’ superintendent admitting to the Board’s FOIA violation and even more difficult when I read the contents of said violation. I am disappointed in the ignorance of the law at best, negligence at worst.
For a full year now, I have been attending MHPS’ Board of Education meetings, and have enjoyed a professional and pleasant relationship with the school administration. While working with them, I have always found them to be one of the most transparent and well-organized of all the governing bodies in Baxter County.
Because a FOIA violation has been uncovered, does not mean any member of the board is up to no good or evil or terrible at their jobs. In fact, it was several board members that helped the investigation along, not impede it.
In talking with the board members, some truly believed nothing wrong had occurred and were more than willing to help answer our questions in the spirit of transparency.
It will now be up to the board as a body to address the FOIA violation head-on and correct themselves. This is a learning opportunity, not just for the school board, but for all governing bodies in the area. Transparency is key in building trust with the community.
While the opposition groups to the millage increase may take a self-proclaimed victory lap today, the fact remains that Mountain Home still needs a new high school. The community is rallying not around the school board, but rather for its children, its teachers, and for the future of Mountain Home.
Keep rallying, Mountain Home. Early voting starts May 2.