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Why can't we all just get along?

Thursday, November 20, 2003

There's been bad blood between Ash Flat Mayor Brien Nix Hall and Police Chief Rickey Crook since long before the mayor was elected last year. It came to a head last week when Hall fired the man who has led the police department for 12 years. Their disdain for one another is no secret to anyone familiar with Ash Flat politics.

We might take the position that the two should swallow their pride and learn to work together. Those in power too often let out-of-control egos render them incapable of working with those they perceive as threats to their positions.

But Crook says he may have been fired because he went public with his complaint about how the city conducts its executive sessions. The chief was fired after he sent us a copy of a letter he had written to the council chastising them for abusing executive (closed) sessions. In the letter, he also formally requested to be present any time the council discusses the police department in executive session.

As we understand the Arkansas Freedom of Information law, the council has the right to exclude the chief from executive sessions if they choose, although they may include him if they are discussing him or his department. But the chief is correct when he says the council is obligated to state why they are meeting in closed session.

This council has the habit of moving into lengthy executive sessions by simply reciting the list of possible reasons allowed under FOI. The act allows, but does not require, executive sessions "for the purpose of considering employment, appointment, promotion, demotion, disciplining, or resignation of any public officer or employee." The mayor is obligated to state specifically which reason the council is moving into closed session.

But FOI forbids executive sessions to discuss "general salary matters, an across-the-board pay increase, or the overall performance of employees as a group." Any action taken in closed session must be ratified in open session after the executive session.

There is obviously some grey area between what the act allows and what it forbids, but it appears to us the council and mayor interpret the law so broadly as to give the appearance of defying rather than complying with the law. Executive sessions are not designed to give governing bodies a safe environment in which to discuss whatever they feel uncomfortable addressing in public.

As we have heard often from the Arkansas Attorney General's office and the Arkansas Municipal League, decisions regarding these grey areas should always be made on the side of open government. Public business must be conducted in public.

The mayor wouldn't tell us why he fired Crook. But if it was because the chief aired the city's dirty laundry, the mayor was wrong. Residents of Ash Flat have the right to know what the mayor and council are talking about, and executive sessions should be the exception rather than the rule. And the residents also have the right to know why the police chief was fired.

The council should demand an accounting. And if they find the firing was based on nothing more than the chief's letter or the ongoing feud between Hall and Crook, they should override the decision and reinstate the chief.And then the council might instruct the mayor and chief to swallow their pride and learn to work together.--DC