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Meanwhile, back at the turmoil over three city directors accused of violating the state’s Freedom of Information Act by privately discussing and planning city business in their personal emails: You may recall Fort Smith attorney and transparency champion Joey McCutchen sued Andre Good, Michael Lorenz and Keith Lau personally for their email discussions over how best to handle the initial lawsuit McCutchen filed against the Fort Smith board of directors for its members doing similar behind-the-scenes emailing. He’d proposed to settle his lawsuit for an apology and the promise they’d not repeat that behavior.

Simple enough and at no cost to the city.

Then Sebastian County Prosecutor Daniel Shue took a look at the emails between the three directors. There was no doubt in his mind that their secret discussion (over not wanting to settle McCutchen’s original suit) violated the state law.

I know, this scenario is a tad convoluted. Just remember McCutchen’s as-yet-unsettled suit provided the fodder for his second action against the trio.

Prosecutor Shue asked the sheriff’s office to investigate the email discussion and determine if cause existed to file misdemeanor criminal charges.

It’s clear enough to me from the extensive letter the 12th District Prosecutor sent the other day that, while not filing charges this time, he’s basically putting the directors on notice that privately emailing about city business best not be happening again.

He specifically warned: “[I]f there is another occurrence of ‘conducting public business in this fashion,’ the sheriff’s office and my office will be compelled by the law to take further action.”

Shue’s verbal visit to the woodshed continued: “[N]o one is asserting that the emails of the board members do not constitute a ‘public record’ that are subject to the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act; therefore, knowing that the emails will eventually come to light either in a few days or weeks, I cannot fathom why certain members of the board wish to engage in this ‘pre-meeting procedure’ particularly when their actions are nothing nefarious that warrant hiding.”

Fort Smith City Attorney Jerry Canfield responded to Shue’s letter with one of his own, which said that in the city’s opinion these email exchanges didn’t violate the open meetings law. Moreover, as pointed out by the Southwest Times Record, it’s troubling that the city’s administrator Carl Geffken called the Freedom of Information Act “ridiculous” in an interview with a deputy during the criminal investigation of the alleged violations.

The arrogance of that statement alone is ridiculous and enough to raise eyebrows among many adults who care about transparency in government and the crucial need for trust in government.

Were I the attorneys for the board and these three directors, rather than wading deeper into the muck, I believe I’d be agreeing to never do the public’s business by private email again. And keeping that agreement to those they serve. Every public body across the state should make and keep such a pledge.

Letters, I get ’em

A number of readers reacted to a nerve I obviously touched the other day about the cost of earning a higher education and alternative choices to college. Here are two messages I received, lightly edited for space:

From reader John — “Thanks for your piece on college costs. A few years back I wrote an essay in Arkadelphia’s paper discussing Arkansas’ extremely low rate of 39 percent graduation within six years. My argument was that too many go to college just to go, with no clear goal or purpose and no real ‘light at the end of the tunnel.’ When the hard work of college-level study and personal discipline comes along [many] jump ship or flunk out. To me, the problem lies with very inadequate pre-college counseling and one-on-one-time discussion that can be enhanced with aptitude and interest testing. It is a terrible waste of time, money and effort for many, leaving young folks in debt, having squandered resources that could be directed in other, more productive schooling. Like you, I also question the tremendous increase in costs of college of the last two decades. Thanks again for raising this important issue.”

Katherine wrote — “I enjoyed today’s column on higher education, and I agree with much of what you say, including the fact that not everyone benefits from having a college education. I’m considering taking some classes for personal enrichment, and was shocked to learn that one class at UCA would cost me roughly $1,000, which included a long list of seemingly unnecessary fees.

“I earned a B.S. in math in 1987 at ULowell (now UMass at Lowell) and took physics as my required science. The faculty were outraged at the expensive texts required, along with booksellers minimally changing the text every year to keep students from being able to buy used books.

“They came up with a less expensive alternative by co-authoring an in-house text, lab, and workbook which were cheaply printed and spiral-bound. Students were charged enough to cover costs, which was significantly lower than ‘real’ textbooks. Professors in other departments refused to use the latest editions unless significant changes had been made to the material.

“Too bad more educators won’t acknowledge they can help students by not buying into the commercialization of college educations.”

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.

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