Tagged: Transparency

Update: Political Sign Removed From Searcy School Grounds

The aforementioned A&P tax sign

I drove by Sidney Deener school this evening around 8:00 p.m. The aforementioned pro-A&P tax sign (pictured right) was no where to be found.

No word if the sign that was being displayed at Southwest Middle School is still up or not. If someone goes by there, let me know if you spot it.

I know of at least one concerned citizen that read my earlier story about these signs that were apparently on public property and contacted Searcy Public Schools directly. On the eve of this pivotal election, what a great reminder of the power of citizen engagement. You can make a difference; you can hold your government accountable. 

If you haven’t voted yet, there is still plenty of time. Arkansas voters, visit http://www.VoterView.org to see where you vote.

Nic Horton

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Examining Judge Lincoln’s ‘Transparency’ Record

Mike Lincoln, currently serving as White County Judge, stated in his recent debate appearance that he always fully complied with Arkansas’ FOI law and that our county government was a “beautiful system” with “so much accountability” and lots of transparency. We beg to differ.

As questions were swirling around the behavior of a county employee, Tamara Jenkins, The Patriot decided to do a little research into the matter ourselves. We availed ourselves of the public’s greatest tool, the Freedom of Information Act, to request electronic copies of all of Ms. Jenkins emails from January 2009 through November 2011. What followed was extremely disappointing.

Before we go into the details of what transpired, let’s examine our rights under the FOIA. Arkansas 25-19-105 says the following:

  • “A citizen may make a request to the custodian to inspect, copy, or receive copies of public records.”
  • “The request may be made in person, by telephone, by mail, by facsimile transmission, by electronic mail, or by other electronic means provided by the custodian.”
  • “If the person to whom the request is directed is not the custodian of the records, the person shall so notify the requester and identify the custodian, if known to or readily ascertainable by the person.”
  • “A citizen may request a copy of a public record in any medium in which the record is readily available or in any format to which it is readily convertible with the custodian’s existing software.”
  • “Except as provided in § 25-19-109 or by law, any fee for copies shall not exceed the actual costs of reproduction, including the costs of the medium of reproduction, supplies, equipment, and maintenance, but not including existing agency personnel time associated with searching for, retrieving, reviewing, or copying the records.”

We point all of these out because we sent our requests via email (as specifically allowed under the second bullet above) and we requested electronic copies of emails (as permitted by the fourth bullet point above) and they are only allowed to charge for “actual costs of reproduction”, not personnel time (under the fifth bullet point).

We sent a request to the judge’s office on November 17th, 2011 asking for “electronic copies” of all “Email correspondence between the White County Judge & Tamara Jenkins from January 2009 through November 17, 2011.” And we were told “There is no e-mail correspondence to or from Tamara Jenkins on Judge Lincoln’s computer.” We responded “So you’re saying there has been no email correspondence between the judge and miss Jenkins in the last 2 years?” The Judge’s office replied that they had amazingly suddenly found 43 emails that Ms. Jenkins had forwarded to the judge, but that there was still no correspondence between the two and that we should stop by their office and pay for the physical copies they would provide us. We then decided to take a different approach since the judge’s office seemed intent on ignoring state law.

We sent a request to Ms. Jenkins herself on November 21, 2011 asking for “All emails sent from your county email address from January 2009 to November 21, 2011.” She replied that “All FOI’s for this office must go through the White County Judge’s Office.” And we were back to the judge’s office.

At this point, we cited the specific, pertinent portions of the actual law (and the portions listed above) to the county, and they had an attorney from Little Rock contact us. After we told the attorney our specific request and informed him that we knew our rights under state law, we were informed that they were gathering the emails but would be redacting “sensitive” information as allowed by law (information like SSN, DOB, etc.). Even with this, the records are supposed to be ready in no more than 3 business days.

The records were finally “ready” on November 28th. “Ready” meant that they had printed several off so they could black out sensitive information with markers instead of following the common sense approach of providing electronic files where an actual SSN is replaced with ***-**-**** and they told us that we would have to pay for these physical copies. We declined and asked for them in the same electronic format we had requested since our initial request, and they finally consented. After weeks of wrangling, we finally had received the emails from Ms. Jenkins, or so we thought.

We began sifting through the hundreds of emails that had been provided, and we soon found some very disturbing things. First of all, we noticed that there was an amazingly sparse amount of email (particularly sent items) for a time period beginning May 16th, 2010. Over the next nine months, Ms. Jenkins records that were turned over per our FOI request indicate she had sent a grand total of five emails and that during the months of June, August, September, December, and January she had not sent any emails. For the nine months that followed that, she allegedly only sent four emails. During the same time periods, she allegedly only received six and four emails respectively. Considering that every other month she provided emails for before that averaged several dozen emails sent per month, this raised our level of curiosity considerably. How can you prove the existence of something that someone claims doesn’t exist? Well, there are a couple of ways.

First of all, the 43 emails that we had previously been told were sent from Ms. Jenkins to the county judge weren’t there. Secondly, we decided to see if we could find another copy of the emails elsewhere. With email, it is a little easier. There are always two parties involved, so we decided to contact some of her frequent correspondents (senders/recipients of her other emails) who are also employed with various government agencies. The judge’s office was ruled out as they had already blatantly ignored the FOIA to avoid providing us with access to public records. An examination of the emails we did receive revealed several other individuals who were employed at state agencies, so we contacted them with FOI requests. These folks should be applauded because they actually complied with the FOIA, perhaps because they had nothing to hide in their emails. We found some interesting things.

The individuals at the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management turned over dozens of emails from Tamara Jenkins that occurred during the time period in question and were sent by Ms. Jenkins to individuals working at the department. The emails in question address mundane things, and they are sent from the same address from which Ms. Jenkins other emails (ostensibly all covered by FOI) are sent. Furthermore, there are many emails that these individuals sent to Ms. Jenkins which were also not included in the response to our FOI request. All of this begs the question:

What happened to Ms. Jenkins’ email? Why is it that dozens of sent and received items mysteriously disappeared and were not passed on to us in response to our FOI request?

If some cataclysmic event had occurred, you would hardly expect to find two messages from February, one message from November, two messages from October etc. left standing amid the wreckage. Why is it that the emails appear to have been systematically purged or withheld dating back to May 2010, which is the time period when much questionable behavior was occurring within Ms. Jenkins’ office?

Is it possible to have any confidence in the transparency of our county government when they refuse to comply with the FOI law for days and weeks before finally turning over incomplete records that have the appearance of an intentional cover-up? According to everyone involved, all these FOI requests were funneled through the county judge’s office, per instructions from the county judge’s office.

The citizens of White County need to ask why their judge is restricting access to public records and they need to demand a judge who believes that the government belongs to the people and should be accountable to the people it represents.

Recap of Monday’s White County Judge’s Debate

Many thanks to citizen reporter & Patriot guest contributor Scott Biddle, who attended last night’s debate & provided these notes.

[Note to the reader: I took these in a hurry, as the debate was happening. They may seem jumbled and confused at points, and I tried to only use quotation marks when I could get down most or all of a direct quote. I have tried to clean them up and make them easier to follow.]

Winston Collier begins at 7:07.

Terms/housekeeping: All were discussed and agreed to by both candidates. Five minutes each for opening remarks. Two minutes per answer followed by 2 minute response followed by 30 second rebuttal. Five questions each. Nobody knows the questions but the moderator. 7.5 minutes each for closing remarks.

Intros finally over after 5 minutes.

Haynie:

Thanks to all. (his microphone isn’t centered on his podium and it seems to be making it a little difficult to hear him)

Lists problems:

  • Inequity of road program
  • Lack of accountability of employees
  • Poor administration
  • County government is a business that needs to be run like a business. Haynie has a background in business, law enforcement, communications, construction make him well suited.
  • Background with heavy equipment makes him more qualified to judge when and whether to fix versus replace equipment.
  • People and employees need to be treated fairly. Open door approach to leadership.
  • FOI act is expected to be followed, records have been “destroyed” and info not provided when he has made FOI requests of the judge’s office.

Lincoln:

  • I’m a blessed man.
  • I’m willing to discuss any issue with anyone at any time.
  • First administrative job was at Judsonia/Riverview.
  • “Government can’t always be run like a business.” Rural water and electric coops.
  • “Government is to serve the people.”
  • “I don’t have any conflicts of interest.”
  • Thank veterans.

Transparency

You’ve publicly stated that transparency is something you’d like to see improved and lack of trust exists. What lack of transparency exists and what would you do to improve it?

Haynie:

  • There are no answers to way tax dollars are spent. No online system for agendas of quorum court, expenditures, upcoming ordinances. He wants everyone to see these things online. Transparency is seeing what’s out there, seeing the truth. Don’t charge people different things for the same thing.

Response from Lincoln:

  • You can request any of these documents at the County Clerk’s office and go to the meetings. Money is all spent after appropriation by JPs. Amendment 55 sets the standard. If you want info, go to the clerk’s office.

Rebuttal by Haynie

  • My idea of transparency is to put it on the web site. Why don’t you want this?
Budget

Significant surplus in general fund. How will you use it if re-elected?

Lincoln:

  • JPs are legislative authority to appropriate money. They are in charge of finances. There are several different funds in the county and many don’t have surplus. Roads fund and Sheriff’s fund don’t have surplus. General fund revenue comes from turnback, millage, etc. We have set aside $1M for bypass and $2M for “special projects”.

Response by Haynie

  • Money from general can be appropriated to road fund. The county can’t keep taking in small gravel roads that haven’t been done the right way from the beginning.

Rebuttal by Lincoln

  • “I believe in progress.” We don’t have all the roads we need.

Roads/Infrastructure

If elected, what would you do, and what facts do you have to support allegations of political favors for Lincoln’s supporters?

  • All should be equal. All charged equally. County records have been FOI’ed and shown that roads are chipsealed by the county that aren’t county roads. They were chipsealed before the tax vote.

Response by Lincoln

  • We do charge $20k per mile, but we don’t charge by cemeteries and we do “state aid” projects. We have only chipsealed county roads, but we have partnered with cities to “help them” (Beebe, Searcy, Rosebud, and others specifically listed)

Rebuttal by Haynie

  • Cities have their own budgets, grants, etc. They should pay for their own road work. I will list specific roads in my closing comments.

Taxes

In 2011, citizens voted down tax. Your office came under scrutiny for the way you handled this. Do you stand by your actions and would you do anything different?

Lincoln:

  • Governor Beebe wanted us to form a strategic plan, and the tax/bypass was part of our strategic plan. Mayor LaForce and I got together and decided we wanted to do this. I proposed a countywide tax to support all of the cities. I stand by the effort and the way we promoted the tax.

Haynie response:

  • I have no problem with the southern bypass. I did have a problem with the north bypass because I don’t see the traffic load to justify it. I’d much rather they spend that money on something like Joy Mountain. How many people are going to have to be injured, lose their lives, etc. before we do something? I wasn’t against the tax, I was against the fact that it was for four times as much as was needed so they could hang a carrot in front of the cities’ noses.

Lincoln rebuttal:

  • My opponent said “no new taxes” during the county tax election but didn’t oppose Searcy’s city tax.

Personnel

April 1st Citizen story talked about personnel changes you would make if elected, what personnel changes would you make and why?

Haynie:

  • I plan on keeping every county employee employed except for one. There is no need to sugar coat it, hide it, or lie about it. I have in my hands a report by the Arkansas State Police. In the 144 pages of report, the Arkansas State Police classified it as Theft of Property and turned it over to the county attorney for possible prosecution.

Lincoln response:

  • Thank God we live in a country where it is innocent until proven guilty. We have “nothing missing from the county”, so we have no theft. No charges were filed. “Aren’t we entitled to correct our mistakes?” Why did Mr. Haynie go to the State Police when he was given information about this?

Haynie rebuttal:

  • If this were a mistake, why would they make full restitution of $7,000 two years after the fact and only after it was brought to the attention of the media and the State Police? I went to the state police because when a citizen is told of a crime being committed, they should go to the police.

Gas exploration

Over the past few years, the gas industry changed things. Discuss positive and negative impact and what you’ll do to address that.

Lincoln:

  • Restitution was only $30, not $7,000. (Haynie says “Lowes”) moderator says “stay on topic”. We have many jobs and roads because of natural gas industry when the economy was suffering. Gas price has dropped, so gas drilling is down.

Haynie response:

  • You can’t make natural gas prices go up unless you have a cold winter up north. I don’t foresee the prices going any higher. I don’t want us to keep depending on natural gas to make our County better.

Lincoln rebuttal:

  • It’s a matter of supply and demand. We need other economic development.

Conflicts of Interest?

You are owner of Haynie Utility Construction and the Judge says he has no other interests and conflicts. Can you run your business and county, or will there be conflicts?

Haynie:

  • We very seldom work with the public. We often do work for cities/churches for no charge. We are a utility construction company and we set poles, run cables, gas distribution lines. We did a lot of work for Chesapeake, but if I am elected, I think it is a conflict of interest if I do any work with any gas company, and I won’t do any work for them.

Lincoln response:

  • Having been a judge for 3 terms, I would find it challenging to have another job and be judge. With all these responsibilities, meetings, mayors, fire departments, I don’t see how anyone could have any outside interests. Would Mr. Haynie not do any work with those companies anywhere?

Haynie rebuttal:

  • No, I will not do any work for any gas company. Is it a conflict for JPs to work with gas companies? (judge is allowed to reply to this direct question and says that is not a conflict for JPs to work with gas companies)

Veterans Services

What has your administration done for veterans, and what would you do better?

Lincoln:

  • 10 percent of the population of our county is veterans. 8,000 and growing. I have hired a VA officer. We acquired a veterans clinic in Searcy.

Haynie response:

  • These people are true heroes. There is money for folks like this, and we will do whatever it takes.

Lincoln rebuttal:

  • I think we agree 100 percent. Whatever we need to do for our veterans, we’ll do.

Personal Health Issues

Share with us information regarding current health and ability to perform tasks if elected.

Haynie:

  • Before 2007, I had severe headaches and it was discovered I had a non-malignant tumor. I had surgery and they successfully removed 90% of the tumor. They didn’t go any further because of the possibility of causing a stroke. The headaches came back, and they found a problem with the superorbital nerve. It is fine now with treatment.

Lincoln response:

  • On January 12, 2010 I had a stroke, and I have no left peripheral vision in both eyes. It has made me unable to drive, but I can get anywhere I want any time I want. I was conducting quorum court a week after the stroke. I watch my health and what I eat. I am fine.

Haynie rebuttal:

  • Neither of us is using health as a campaign issue.

Problems facing the county

What is the biggest problem facing the county, and what will you do to overcome it?

Lincoln:

  • I am interested in the future of White County. The issues are economic development and infrastructure. The tax would have addressed that, but we still have to work on it now. Several one lane wooden bridges have been replaced by two lane concrete bridges, and we are continuing to do that. Infrastructure is improving our road system. When the quorum court gives me that extra money, they trust me to be fair and “spread it around” the county as appropriate.

Haynie response:

  • Number one thing I hear about when I talk to people around the county is roads and bridges. I’m not going to say the judge is all wrong, but we differ on how things should be done. I’ll address some specific things in my closing comments.

Lincoln rebuttal:

  • It appears I’m in for a lot of surprises in the closing statement, and I won’t have a chance to respond. Ask me about those surprises later.
Closing Statements

Lincoln closing statement:

  • County government is the best governmental process in existence.
  • There is “so much accountability” in county government. Amendment 55 has set up a “beautiful system”. I am honored to be a part of that system.
  • I believe my record speaks for itself. Go out and see the bridges we’ve replaced.
  • We’ve continued to chipseal what the weather and our funds have allowed us to do. JPs have looked at ways to do special projects.
  • We are considering putting in a new 911 dispatch center near Law Enforcement Center. It would be state of the art. High Tech.
  • We’ve assisted all the cities in doing their roads.
  • The state police and my office found no charges to Lowes that the county paid for Jenkins.

Haynie closing statement:

  • True, the county was not out any money over OEM thing. This was because it was all paid back after two years when the story broke. I’ve got Lowe’s receipts with White County OEM account and Tamara Jenkins name on them for her home improvements.
  • If elected I will be: fair, equal, and consistent with all county residents; full-time judge.
  • I will bring true transparency to county government. Agendas, budgets, and expenditures will be available online for free. It’s your money, you have the right to know how it is being spent.
  • I will create fair and equal chipseal system. All roads will meet same standards, like under 99-9 that was repealed when judge Lincoln took office. Morris School road has been done 1.4 miles, not the .5 miles we authorized paying for.
  • The county should buy towers and radios for EMS folks instead of holding fundraisers.
  • I will hold county employees accountable for their actions.

Side note: Four people are holding signs complaining about corruption in Higginson (pertaining to Randall Homsley) and why Prosecuting Attorney Chris Raff won’t prosecute.

Editor’s note: We will have more analysis of the debate this afternoon.

Maryland Legislator Fighting to Modernize Ethics Laws

The state of Maryland is considering modernizing their ethics laws, making it easier for citizens to review legislators’ contributions.  A novel idea!  (believe it or not, this is actually an area where Arkansas performs rather well: voters can see contributions & other financial information by searching on the Secretary of State’s website)

Senator Jamie Raskin is the author of the bill to modernize the disclosure process, but shockingly, some state Democrats are stalling.

Of course they support the idea, and they knew the bill was coming so they had plenty of time to prepare, but it seems they only have 5 days left in their session and that may not be enough time to pass the bill.  After all, this is a very complicated matter, posting a few PDFs online and all.  Delegate Maggie McIntosh who chairs the committee considering the bill said:

“I saw this bill coming, and I certainly support the intent of this bill, but there’s a lot to digest here. I just don’t know if we can do it in five days” when the session is scheduled to end.”

Senator Raskin’s main concern & reasoning for proposing this bill is that legislators’ financial information is not readily available to some citizens, particularly the elderly, and voters have to go to great lengths to obtain information.

“We are talking about people who are dealing with millions of dollars,” Raskin said. He said it was unreasonable to make people travel 90 minutes for information that is already public “and can easily be put online.”

The bill passed the Maryland Senate unanimously last month.

 

Searcy Mayor Hosting Town-hall Meeting Tonight

Searcy Mayor David Morris is hosting a ‘town-hall meeting’ tonight at the Carmichael Community center.

It will be mostly an open format where citizens are allowed to ask questions (*GASP*).

Friends of open government should attend and ask questions like:

  • Why isn’t the city budget online yet?
  • What, specifically, has the city done to promote transparency in government?
  • Now that we’ve voted in a tax for a bypass, are we any closer to knowing the path of the road?

The meeting begins at 7 p.m.

Nic Horton

We Passed! Arkansas Gets D+ For Government Integrity

The headline speaks for itself and as one of Arkansas’ finest legislators, Rep. Andrea Lea, told KARN’s Donna Kelley:

“It’s not surprising.  Disappointing, but not surprising.”

There is a little hope that Arkansas’ score might see an increase in the future with the state’s online checkbook reportedly scheduled to launch in July.  But anytime New Jersey, Illinois, & Louisiana score ahead of your state on an ethics rating, you tend to worry.

Some of the factors in the score were “Public Access to Information” & “State Pension Fund Management.”  Arkansas received an ‘F’ in both categories.

Here’s a really neat-0 chart from State Integrity Investigation that shows how Arkansas was scored and why (click on the image to visit SII’s website & see how each score was determined):

 

Nic Horton

Searcy City Clerk Resigns, Effective August 31st

I spoke with Mayor David Morris after Thursday night’s Searcy City Council meeting. He informed me that City Clerk Peggy Meads is resigning, effective August 31, 2012. I do not have the full story, but I believe she is getting married and perhaps relocating as a result.

Miss Meads was elected to a 4-year term in 2010, so the council will now appoint someone to finish the remainder of her term.

Mayor Morris told me,

I recommended tonight that they advertise for resumes to be submitted, review resumes, interview top finalists, and then select a person to offer the position to. That was it is all out in the open.

An avid reader of The Patriot reminded me last night that Ms. Meads was very professional & helpful during the A&P debacle a few years ago, in the face of immense pressure within the city government to act otherwise. She has always been helpful & fair to both sides, the best I can tell.

Despite recent disagreements, I do commend Ms. Meads for her overall body of work as city clerk & wish her all the best in whatever adventures life brings her next.

Nic Horton