Walker apologizes but says paper was notified of meeting

Pine Bluff Alderwoman Thelma Walker apologized Friday for not making certain that The Commercial was given advance notice of a Thursday meeting of the city council’s community development committee, but said she had been assured that an employee in the city clerk’s office had telephoned the newspaper on Wednesday and left a message relating the meeting’s scheduled time and place.

Walker chairs the committee, which met at the community development department. The panel in part discussed a HUD report listing 14 findings and two concerns in an audit that determined the city had “improperly spent” nearly $200,000 in HUD funds that must be repaid or deducted from its 2013 HUD grant funding. In addition, more than $279,000 in expenditures must be justified with documentation or they will also have to be repaid or forfeited from current year funding.

“I asked where The Commercial reporter was,” she said in regard to the meeting. “I was told that The Commercial had been told about the meeting but the reporter wasn’t there and a tape of the meeting would be made for him.”

A copy of the tape was obtained Friday from Evelyn Horton, Mayor Debe Hollingsworth’s administrative assistant, but was inaudible.

Walker told a reporter at Monday night’s council session that the committee would meet at 10 a.m. Tuesday. The reporter arrived and was told that meeting had been rescheduled for that afternoon. Within minutes of arriving for the second gathering, he was advised that it had been postponed. Walker then told the reporter that she anticipated the meeting would be held sometime Thursday and she would see that he was notified of its scheduling “in plenty of time” to plan his attendance.

No Commercial employee acknowledged receiving a telephone call on either Wednesday or Thursday about Thursday’s meeting. The Commercial learned the meeting had been held only after its completion.

Horton said she attended the meeting along with Walker, committee member Alderman Glen Brown, Acting Community Development Director Larry Matthews, Community Development Project Director Lori Walker and local development contractor Jerry Riley. Horton said the meeting lasted about an hour.

Thelma Walker said Friday that she felt it would be unfair for citizens to believe that she was in any way attempting to conceal the HUD report. She said her record as a council member and community development committee leader reflects her strong oversight of the community development department.

Hollingsworth said Friday that she is still reviewing the details of the meeting to make certain that the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act was not violated.