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The mayor of Mansfield is suing the city he heads and three of its council members, accusing them of violating the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act by exchanging texts in hatching a plot to strip the mayor of his powers.

Fort Smith attorney Joey McCutchen filed the lawsuit Tuesday in Sebastian County Circuit Court on behalf of Mayor Larry Austin. It named the city and three of its council members -- Sheri Hopkins, Rick McDaniel and Beverly Lyons -- as defendants.

The lawsuit asks a judge to declare that text messages exchanged among council members and Recorder/Treasurer Becky Walker constituted an unlawful meeting under the Freedom of Information Act for which notice to the public should have been given. It also asks for an injunction against the council holding unlawful informal meetings in the future.

Walker declined to comment on the lawsuit Wednesday, referring questions to the town's attorney, Matt Ketcham of Fort Smith. Ketcham did not return a call for comment.

In the 10-page lawsuit, Austin accuses the officials of communicating among themselves to come up with a way to remove Austin's mayoral duties.

The suit said Walker was upset with Austin and believed he was ignoring and bullying her.

Also, McDaniel read a long letter at the Dec. 21 council meeting in which he criticized Austin for disrupting the operation of city departments and driving off employees. After reading the letter, the suit said, the other five council members stood and asked Austin to resign.

"The only inference to be drawn from such events is that the event was pre-planned in violation of FOIA in order to remove Mayor Austin from office," McCutchen wrote in the lawsuit.

Attached as an exhibit to the lawsuit was the bill Ketcham submitted for his legal services to Mansfield last year. An entry for Nov. 8 showed Ketcham billed Mansfield $1,200, or 27 percent of his $4,365 bill for 2017, for researching at McDaniel's request issues of malfeasance, nonfeasance and "removal of certain elected officials from office."

The lawsuit said Walker sent text messages to council members suggesting a special meeting during which they could vote to remove Austin from office. The meeting was held Dec. 28.

One of the issues that had most recently angered council members and residents was a boil order that had been in place since Dec. 5 that Austin had not resolved and on which council members were not informed. The state lifted the boil order the day after the meeting.

Ketcham told council members at the meeting that they could not remove Austin from office because he was elected by the people and had certain powers and duties under state law. Ketcham told council members they could remove various other duties -- such as personnel, hiring and firing, and spending city money -- that the mayor was given under city ordinances.

The council voted unanimously to remove the mayor's powers delegated to him by city ordinance and transfer them to Walker. Members also passed an ordinance that the council meet weekly rather than monthly. Council members said weekly meetings would allow them to more closely monitor and control issues in the city.

Austin vetoed both ordinances, saying they were illegal.

Council members discussed voting to override the mayor's veto, but Ketcham told them they could only take such a vote at a regular meeting.

The council's next regular meeting is at 7 tonight, but Walker said Wednesday that a veto override measure was not on the agenda.

State Desk on 01/18/2018

Print Headline: Mayor sues Mansfield, 3 councilmen

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