BRANCH -- The town of Branch admitted it violated the state's Freedom of Information Act by not recording its public meetings. In return, a Franklin County Circuit Court judge Wednesday dismissed a lawsuit against the city.
Fort Smith-based attorney Joey McCutchen filed a lawsuit against Branch in Franklin County Circuit Court in February on behalf of his client, resident J.B. Turner.
McCutchen said Jan. 31 that Turner, who's active in Branch city government, sent the city a Freedom of Information Act request Dec. 5 asking for recordings of City Council meetings from May through November. The city reportedly responded it didn't have any recordings, which makes it appear it hasn't been recording its public meetings as required under state law, McCutchen said.
Turner requested the recordings because he felt the written minutes the city produced of these council meetings were inaccurate, according to McCutchen. Turner believed he was misquoted on a particular issue.
McCutchen argued there isn't any "guesswork" concerning what someone said during a meeting if the meeting is recorded.
In a court order signed by Circuit Judge Jack Patterson, the city admitted to the court it violated the Freedom of Information Act by failing to record council meetings. It also admitted it violated the law by charging Turner 25 cents per page for copies of public documents and the time required to gather them.
The city said it's now in compliance with the recording requirement.
The court ordered the city to record its meetings and maintain them for a year, as required by the law, and reimburse Turner the $265.68 he spent to obtain public records as well as pay $1,125 in attorney's fees to McCutchen and $167.50 in court fees.
The Arkansas Legislature approved Act 1028 during its 2019 regular session, according to the Legislature's website.
The act amended the Freedom of Information Act of 1967 to require all officially scheduled, special and called open public meetings be recorded in a way that captures sound. This includes, but is not limited to, an audio recording, a video recording with sound and picture, or a digital or analog broadcast capable of being recorded.
Act 1028 also requires a public entity maintain such a recording for at least one year from the date of the meeting in a format that may be reproduced for the public upon request. The act became fully applicable to first and second class cities, as well as incorporated towns, on July 1, 2020. It doesn't apply to executive sessions nor volunteer fire departments.
Gerald Harris, mayor of Branch, said Feb. 2 he wasn't aware of the change in the law that Act 1028 required. He said the city will follow the act in all future public meetings.
Branch had a population of 296 as of the 2020 U.S. census.
See the signed Order of Dismissal here: https://www.nwaonline.com/610orderofdismissal/