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OPINION: Tenacity Wins Case Against County

by By Greg Harton | January 4, 2023 at 4:00 a.m.

Score one for Beth Coger. And for transparency in government.

Coger refused to accept the legal gymnastics Washington County's leadership went through to keep her from observing deliberations affecting public policy.

Coger, a resident who also got herself elected in November to the Washington County Quorum Court, has until now been most prominently known as an interested citizen-turned-activist. The organization she led, the Arkansas Justice Reform Coalition, wants Washington County (and others) to rely less on incarceration and more on judicial remedies that attempt to correct the factors in people's lives that contributed to their criminal behaviors.

It's been a good couple of months for Coger. Beyond her own election, her organization's campaign against jail expansions helped defeat large-scale jail construction proposals in both Washington and Benton counties.

Granted, it's hard to discern how many voters were motivated by other factors -- such as opposition to a sales tax increase or the specifics of the two counties' proposals. Undoubtedly some were influenced by the the coalition's arguments for less incarceration and more programs attacking substance abuse, mental illness, poverty and other factors involved in crime.

That fight's not over. Leaders in both counties continue eyeing plans for smaller jail expansions.

And now, here at the end of 2022, Coger wins a legal case against Washington County -- including departing County Judge Joseph Wood, chief of staff/county attorney Brian Lester and two of Coger's future colleagues on the Quorum Court, Lisa Ecke and Butch Pond -- over lack of public notice of meetings of the county's Job Evaluation/Salary Administration Program committee. Because government likes acronyms, the committee is commonly referred to as the JESAP committee.

Coger's chief interest was in the committee's possible discussions about a "diversionary case manager," ostensibly a position that would evaluate people charged with crimes and divert them from jail time if an alternative would better suit their circumstances. She discovered county officials held unannounced JESAP meetings regularly, some of them by circulating information via email, then even casting votes by email. That's entirely contrary to the concept of conducting the public's business in public.

In short, the county -- chiefly through Wood's office -- chose to be combative with Coger over her audacity to expect the public's business to be conducted openly. As she demanded access, resistance grew. Stall tactics and purposeful inertia continued.

A lawyer for the county even argued to the court that Coger couldn't justify allegations of violations of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act because she had never attended any JESAP meetings to witness evidence supporting such allegations. Ain't that a neat trick: Block her from attending meetings, then use the fact that she hasn't attended the meetings to try to get her lawsuit tossed out of court. That's bold.

Most people don't have the tenacity or the money to fight antagonistic public officials in the courts. Officials who prefer secrecy rely on that fact. Perhaps one indication of how such fights can become hot potatoes is the fact every elected circuit judge in Washington County -- Doug Martin, John Threet, Beth Storey Bryan, Mark Lindsay, Joanna Taylor, Cristi Beaumont, Stacy Zimmerman and Diane Warren -- recused from hearing her case, requiring appointment of a special judge by the state Supreme Court.

Voters should elect officials devoted to the public decision-making processes of open government. They should oust those who aren't.

Now, taxpayers are stuck with the tab for Coger's case -- and should be. It's the price for having public officials who disrespect public decision-making.

Her case is more evidence that public officials aren't always public minded, that they're glad to pay lip service to transparency as long as nobody demands it, and that Arkansans need a stronger Freedom of Information Act, not one with more exceptions.

Arkansans deserve better. Credit Coger for demanding it.

Print Headline: Tenacity Wins Case Against County

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