Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Inside Scoop Fights For Public Access When Willis Attempts To Close Meeting

By Inside Scoop Staff

HELENA-WEST HELENA- Inside Scoop Online Co-Editor Andrew Bagley stood up for the right of the city and its citizens to have access to appeal hearings for fired city employees in the face of an illegal effort by Mayor Arnell Willis to close the hearings, which the terminated employees wanted open.

Nine employees fired by Willis were on Tuesday's city council agenda for appeal hearings. Willis has fired all of those employees since taking office at the first of the year. The only reason stated by Willis in the termination letters given to employees is that he was taking the city "in a new direction." Willis began discussion of the matter by announcing that the council would go into executive session. When Alderman Marvin Jarrett raised the point of order that an executive session was not required, Willis said, "This is what we are going to do. We are going into executive session." Willis then said who would be allowed in the hearing and said attorneys for employees would be allowed in the executive session. The Arkansas Freedom of Information Act specifically excludes attorneys from participating in executive sessions. It also requires a majority vote of the city council to enter an executive session, not a Mayoral proclamation.

At the meeting, Bagley objected to Willis's insistence on an executive session. He said, "Mayor Willis, the FOI is very specific that if an attorney is present, then the hearing must be open." Willis attempted to silence Bagley, but Bagley insisted on getting the objection noted for the record and pointed out that the City could have to pay the legal fees of media groups under the provisions of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act if it illegally went into an executive session.

Alderman Jay Hollowell then dialogued with Bagley on the proper procedures for an executive session. However, before a council vote could be taken on whether or not to go into executive session, attorneys for the fired employees pointed out that Willis did not have a court reporter present as required under the Arkansas Administrative Procedures Act.

Reached after the meeting, Bagley said, "The ability of our society to have access to public information is pivotal to a free press to keep the citizenry informed so that it can hold public officials accountable. I felt it was important for the public and media to have access to these hearings, and the executive sessions as proposed by Mayor Willis were not legal."

The hearings for the fired employees are scheduled again for March 15.

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