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FORT SMITH — A Sebastian County circuit judge ruled Thursday that emails exchanged among city officials last year constituted informal meetings in violation of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.

Circuit Judge Michael Fitzhugh granted summary judgments in two lawsuits filed by Bruce Wade of Fort Smith. The first, filed in June, was over emails circulated among city directors and City Administrator Carl Geffken over whether the Civil Service Commission should be dissolved.

The second lawsuit, filed in August, complained that city directors violated the Freedom of Information Act when they discussed through emails whether to accept a settlement offer in the Civil Service Commission email lawsuit.

Summary judgments are granted when there are no questions of fact for a jury to decide, leaving the judge to decide the case based on the law.

“Under the facts of this case, the court concludes that informal meetings subject to the FOIA were held by way of emails,” Fitzhugh wrote. “The purpose of which were to either opine or survey the members as to the demise of the [Civil Service Commission] and/or acceptance/rejection of a settlement. These are clearly matters that should have occurred in a public setting.”

Fitzhugh ordered the officials to stop conducting the public’s business through emails without giving public notice.

The first lawsuit resulted from a Civil Service Commission meeting in May in which the commission took no action on Police Chief Nathaniel Clark’s request to amend civil service rules.

After the meeting, City Director Andre Good sent an email to Geffken calling for the dissolution of the commission and asked him to forward the email to other city directors.

Geffken and City Director Mike Lorenz responded to the email.

In the second lawsuit, Geffken and City Attorney Jerry Canfield recommended that city directors reject an offer to settle the lawsuit involving the emails over the Civil Service Commission. City Directors Good, Lorenz and Keith Lau responded to the email giving their positions on the settlement question.

Fitzhugh compared the two lawsuits filed against the city officials to another Fort Smith case, Harris v. City of Fort Smith. Fitzhugh wrote that the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled that individual contact with board members by the city administrator involving city business without public notice was an informal meeting subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

“As in Harris, the various emails herein involved city business,” Fitzhugh wrote.

Print Headline: Fort Smith officials’ emails found illegal

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