(FORT SMITH) A divided Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that three Fort Smith city directors’ use of email to discuss a proposed change to the city’s civil service rules did not violate the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.
By a 5-2 margin — with two justices joining the majority through a concurring opinion — the court ruled that the two email chains in question did not constitute a public meeting because their focus was on “background information” and did not result in any decision being made by the city board.
Justice Courtney Goodson, writing for the majority, rejected the city’s attempts to argue that emails — because they are not explicitly named in the law — cannot constitute a public meeting.
However, ruling more narrowly on the subject matter of the specific emails in question, Goodson, along with Chief Justice Dan
Kemp and Justice Karen Baker, chose to reverse and remand the case to a lower court that had previously ruled against the city.
That outcome was concurred with by Justices Shawn Womack and Rhonda Wood, who otherwise said they would not reach the conclusion that the Freedom of Information Act includes email communications in its definition of a public meeting.
The decision pertains to a cluster of emails between City Directors Keith Lau and Andre Good and then-City Director Mike Lorenz in May and June 2017, regarding a proposal to change the civil service rules as part of an effort to hire more women and members of minority groups in the Police Department.
Good originally sent an email with recommendations about how to handle the matter to the entire seven-person city board, as well as the city administrator.
Good and Lorenz later replied with their opinions in their own emails. (The board later voted on a non-binding resolution to support changing the civil service rules at a public meeting.)
A local resident, Bruce Wade, filed a lawsuit against the city, claiming its board of directors violated the open meeting provisions of the Freedom of Information Act by discussing a pending matter over email.