by Max Brantley
When the University of Arkansas announced Friday four candidates for president of the UA System, I renewed my request to UA spokesman Ben Beaumont for notice of all meetings of the University Board of Trustees, including those involving only two members of the Board.
If you'll recall, in the early stages of this process, I learned through an FOI request that then-Board Chair John Ed Anthony had held round-robin meetings with individual board members in a process that the University believed evaded the Freedom of Information Act, which requires notice of meetings of members of public boards.
I wanted, at a minimum, a written acknowledgment that the UA believed it need not notify me of meetings of two board members. I'd made it clear to Beaumont earlier that I was prepared to mount a legal challenge to the UA policy. I got this note back yesterday:
I know that you are aware that a number of Arkansas Attorney General opinions have dealt with the open meetings requirement of the FOIA and said that a “meeting” is a gathering of a governing body at which members discuss official business on which action will be taken. The Attorney General has also said that the number in attendance does not alone determine whether a meeting has occurred and consideration must be given to the surrounding circumstances. With that in mind, we will give you advance notice when we are aware of any meeting of the board — between two or more members — as defined by the opinions of the Attorney General. Attached for reference is Opinion 99-018, which deals with this issue.
No more round-robin meetings of two board members. That's a good thing. I complimented Beaumont on the policy. Is this not a change, I asked?
I wouldn't say that. We have always sought to follow the opinions of the Attorney General regarding the FOIA.
That's simply not true, as this earlier article indicates. From a March John Ed Anthony e-mail:
"I'm advised by [UA legal counsel] Fred [Harrison] that two trustees can meet together without violating FOI."
From Beaumont himself at that time:
"... we relied on a 1976 Arkansas Supreme Court case that recognized that a meeting of two board members would not violate FOIA. In that case, the Supreme Court explained that FOIA would not apply to meetings for purposes of only obtaining information. Also, the attorney general recognized in a 2001 opinion that there is no hard rule that two members either do or do not make a meeting. Our position is that Mr. Anthony was given sound legal guidance and followed it."
Point made. The UA intends to do right in the future and that's a good thing.
Speaking of the UA presidency: There is some rip-roaring commentary on yesterday's item about the four candidates, in case you missed it. Just so you'll know, farmer Stanley Reed's lobby believes he's a second-ballot winner, starting with perhaps four solid votes. My only response to that is that, while five votes are technically all that are needed for selection by the 10-member board if the chairman doesn't vote except to break a tie, the board will want to make a consensus choice. Depth of opposition, even if short of a majority, to any candidate will be a factor in deliberations.
ON SECOND THOUGHT: Perhaps I was too exuberant yesterday. Perhaps UA means it will only obey the law when it finds it convenient. I should have asked if Beaumont still thinks it was proper for John Ed Anthony to essentially hold a round-robin vote on whether to proceed on certain presidential candidates. Were these meetings "informational"only? I don't think an honest judge in the land would think so, but .... Eternal vigilance is certainly required.