Committee meeting may be violation of FOIA

The Pine Bluff City Council’s Community Development Committee apparently met Thursday afternoon at the city community development department on Georgia Street without notifying the media, a violation of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.

The Commercial learned that the panel, which had twice canceled a planned Tuesday meeting, met and discussed a HUD review that is featured in a related report in today’s edition.

Efforts to contact Alderwoman Thelma Walker, who chairs the committee, were unsuccessful.

Committee member Alderman Glen Brown said by telephone that he and Walker had attended the meeting, but the other panel member — Alderman Charles Boyd — was not present. Asked why The Commercial was not notified of the meeting, Brown said he was told that a “tape” of the gathering was going to be provided to the newspaper.

Advised that such action would probably not negate an apparent violation of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act, Brown said it wasn’t his role as a commission member to advise the media. He said that responsibility generally falls to a committee chair or the city clerk’s office.

The Commercial most often is notified by the latter, although panel chairs occasionally inform the paper directly. Neither served notice on Thursday’s meeting.

Asked to relate the discussion on the HUD report, Brown initially said he was “not at liberty to discuss it.” Asked if the meeting was public business, Brown hesitated and then said he was “advised” not to comment on the report. He declined to say who might have requested his silence or indicated that providing a tape to the media would suffice, but did say it was a department employee.

Mayor Debe Hollingsworth said Thursday night that she won’t “tolerate” what she termed “a violation of the public’s trust.”

“We’re not going to have any secret meetings,” she said. “The integrity of the city’s government will not be compromised under my watch. I’m displeased by the HUD report, but I’m totally angered by the possibility that a council committee may have violated the FOI. I can guarantee you that I’ll be looking into this.”

Senior Alderman Bill Brumett was also irate.

“As upsetting as the HUD findings are, I’m probably more disturbed by the fact that it appears that the community development committee met without notifying the press,” he said. “There’s not a single member of our council who isn’t aware of our obligations to ensure that city business is public business. I’m disappointed that any member of our council would even contemplate conducting any sort of meeting without properly informing the media. That’s totally unacceptable.”