Attorney: Private discussion of insurance program by PBSD would violate law

If the Pine Bluff School Board had discussed a private legal services program in executive session during its meeting Tuesday night, it would have violated the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act, an attorney for the Arkansas Press Association said Friday.

Amber Davis-Tanner of the Quattlebaum, Grooms, Tull and Burrows law firm in Little Rock said that executive session discussions must deal solely with personnel considerations such as hirings, firings, retirements, resignations and suspensions.

Confusion occurred at Tuesday’s meeting when the board — returning to open session after nearly 80 minutes in executive session — commenced acting on a matter involving Legal Shield, a self-paid, protective law service.

After some discussion and a push by the district’s attorney, Luther Sutter, for a vote on the matter, the board unanimously decided against authorizing payroll deductions for employees wishing to enlist the service. Before the vote, Director Andrea Roaf-Little said she found the issue to be “unethical.” Director Henry Dabner expressed similar disfavor.

Board Secretary Leon Jones was not in his chair during the Legal Shield discussions. Jones is an independent insurance agent who sells the attorney benefits service. He said Friday that he is not engaged in Legal Shield activities with the district because as a board member, such conduct would constitute a conflict of interest.

Jones said that independent agent Doyce Tarkington of Bryant is representing Legal Shield with the district.

Board President Piccola Washington said Friday that Legal Shield was not discussed in executive session. She said the discussions of Legal Shield that occurred in open session were instead a continuation of 2013 dialogue on employee insurance offerings.

“The question of a (Legal Shield) deduction had come up before,” she said, adding that she was aware that privately discussing the program would have been unlawful.

The executive session had been numbered as the 11th item on the meeting agenda. At Sutter’s request, Legal Shield was added as 11A before directors and Superintendent Linda Watson went behind closed doors.

Washington said Friday that once the executive session ended, she decided to address the Legal Shield matter first so that Jones could return to the board table and vote on personnel items that had been discussed in executive session.

Washington said the board strives to be transparent in its actions.

Dabner said Friday that he opposes any program in which the district might be “doing business with anyone on the board.”

Dabner echoed Washington in saying that the Legal Shield matter wasn’t addressed in executive session, but said he had had no prior knowledge of the program.

“I didn’t have a clue about it until just a few days before the meeting” when Sutter spoke of it in a communication to directors, Dabner said.

“That was my first time ever hearing about it,” Dabner said.

In his comments to the board on the Legal Shield issue, Sutter said he was bringing up the matter primarily as a service to several PBSD employees who had registered to participate in the program. He said he had requested but was denied a state attorney general’s opinion on the matter.

Late Friday, Sutter provided copies of his Oct. 28, 2013, letter on the Legal Shield situation to the Arkansas Ethics Commission as well as respective Oct. 16 and Nov. 8 statements from Chief Deputy Attorney General Bradford J. Phelps and AEC Director Graham F. Sloan.

In his letter to AEC, Sutter related his caution in the Legal Shield matter, especially in how it involved Jones. Sutter noted that Jones had vowed to “not use his position to steer employees” to the program and would abstain from any related school board votes.

In his response, Sloan referenced Arkansas Code Annotated 21-8-304, which states: “No public servant shall use or attempt to use his or her official position to secure special privileges or exemptions for himself or herself or his or her spouse, child, parents, or other persons standing in the first degree of relationship, or for those with whom he or she has a substantial financial relationship that are not available to others except as may be otherwise provided by law.”

Noting that school board members are public servants, Sloan also referenced Arkansas Code Annotated 21-8-1001, which states, “No member of a state board or commission or board member of an entity receiving state funds shall participate in, vote on, influence, or attempt to influence an official decision if the member has a pecuniary interest in the matter under consideration by the board, commission, or entity.”