The fireworks between Eva Madison, one of 15 members of the Washington County Quorum Court, and the county judge's office make for quite the spectacle. Like the magnetic attraction of a car wreck one driving past can't resist looking at, there's definitely something to see, but it's unlikely to be good.
Madison is a bulldog. Her supporters would say that's a compliment. Others will suggest it's something else entirely. But we do know this: She speaks up, loudly and forcefully, when she believes county government is not living up to a standard of adequate ethics or transparency.
What’s the point?
The response to a request for public information held by the Washington County judge’s office was inadequate if transparency is a goal. The law requires that it should be.
The Quorum Court is designed to be the legislative branch of county government, overseeing the annual budget and establishing the laws that the executive branch -- county judge, sheriff, assessor, collector, circuit clerk, county clerk, etc. -- is supposed to dutifully enforce. A good portion of Washington County's Quorum Court, made up of more Republicans than Democrats, was content in 2018 to leave the major lifting of budgetary work to the elected department heads. That's certainly their prerogative, and we appreciate a go-along-to-get-along approach from time to time, but it's a dangerous strategy for a budget involving many millions of dollars.
Washington County, and others in Arkansas, have learned the hard way that mischief happens when oversight is inadequate. Washington County's own information technology director stands accused of felony theft involving thousands of dollars in county property over several years and discovered in the first year of County Judge Joseph Wood's term. The now-former county employee hasn't yet been tried.
So Eva Madison asks questions, when she's allowed to. Wood shut her down as she forcefully expressed concerns in the last Quorum Court meeting about travel expenditures by the county attorney, an arrangement for road work within the city of Tontitown and other issues. So Madison asked for information from Wood's office.
Most county judges have the good sense to work with members of the Quorum Court, even those he considers antagonistic to his policies or management. It shouldn't take a formal request for documents under the state's Freedom of Information Act for a member of the Quorum Court to get basic budgetary or spending documents. But that's where things apparently stand between Wood and Madison.
So she asked. And the lack of response by the county judge's office has now been ruled by a judge to have been a violation of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act, which is designed to give all Arkansans access to the government they pay for and which has powers affecting their daily lives.
Judge Wood, in the wake of the judge's ruling, said he accepts responsibility, but explains the failure by saying County Attorney Brian Lester was on vacation. In Wood's office, all requests for information are routed to Lester.
As anyone in government can attest, its responsibilities to the public do not go on hiatus just because a county employee takes a vacation. Do the courts stop accepting lawsuit filings when the circuit clerk takes vacation? Are those wanting a marriage license just out of luck if the county clerk is skiing the slopes of Colorado?
Wood says he'll review his department's policies to make sure it's responsive in the future. Good for him. All it took was a judge telling him how important it is to be responsive to requests for information any taxpayer should easily be able to access. But we'll take progress in whatever form it comes.
What the county judge's office has provided is a perfect example of a government entity in control of public documents who, either through retribution or incompetence, denied a citizen her rights.
If this happened because of a dislike for Madison, it points out exactly why Arkansans need a strong Freedom of Information Act. It's vital that government officials not get to pick who they respond to and who they won't. Emotion and motives do not matter one bit in an FOIA request. If it's a public document, Arkansans should simply be able to ask and receive it without having to engage in a fight.
Supporters of the county judge may suggest Madison has been too aggressive, mean, vindictive and political in her pursuit of information. She's certainly aggressive. Let's accept for argument's sake the contention she's behaved badly. Here's the deal: Someone else's troublesome behavior does not justify your own.
Perhaps one indication of how petty this situation became involved a typo in Madison's request for a "contact" with Tontitown, which the context certainly suggests the word was meant to be "contract." County officials argued they couldn't figure out what Madison meant. Passive-aggressive, perhaps?
Another indication of the attitude about Madison: The county road superintendent saw an email from her, but testified he never opened it. Now, shouldn't a county employee who receives an email from a member of the Quorum Court at least open it to find out what's needed? Unless the culture of the office is antagonistic toward such an inquiry, we'd say yes.
At best, the county judge's office has been resistant to Madison's inquiries because the questions she's asking are not ones they like. And yes, they might be entirely political or they might be earnest concern for county expenditures. It doesn't matter. Answer the requests for information.
If an elected official doesn't like to answer questions or struggles to come up with responsive answers, that's an entirely different issue. But the response for requests for documents is simple: Provide them.
Commentary on 12/09/2018
Print Headline: Responsive government?