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No charges for West Fork officials accused of meeting violations

By TONY HERNANDEZ NORTHWEST ARKANSAS TIMES

This article was published March 31, 2011 at 3:57 a.m.

— Prosecutors will not pursue criminal charges after an investigation into actions by a former West Fork mayor and some of its City Council members, all of whom were accused of violating the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

“I think it was ridiculous from the start,” former Mayor Jan Throgmorton said. “We didn’t want to mislead the public in any way.”

Five parties, including the city’s current mayor, filed four complaints against Throgmorton and the other city leaders last year.

“We couldn't prove that anybody acted with negligence,” said Denis Dean, a deputy Washington County prosecutor. “We lacked the criminal intent needed to file criminal charges. ... We couldn’t find any evidence of an evil purpose or secretive purpose.”

West Fork Mayor Frances Hime and former City Clerk Susan Cooney filed complaints against the city government last year. Hime was not mayorat the time she filed the complaint. Three others filed similar complaints, including the Washington County Observer.

The complaints center on an Aug. 10 council meeting during which an executive session took place with Throgmorton. Aldermen Rodney Drymon, Anita Lowry, John Foster, Joan Wright and Misty Caudle were at the meeting. Alderman Justin Harris was absent.

Hime, Cooney and the other complainants alleged the council improperly entered into executive session without announcing the reason for the closed session. The specific purpose for holding an executive session should be announced by the governing body prior to starting the session, according to state law.

The executive session was held after the meeting started and the minutes of the meeting do not state why the council entered into executive session.

“While that might have happened, they didn’t do it with negligence,” Dean said. Negligence must be shown before criminal charges can be filed.

Arkansas lawmakers passed the state Freedom of Information Act in the late 1960s to ensure government business is transacted in a public manner, with exemptions only for specific situations that permit some level of secrecy.

The Arkansas State Police conducted 18 interviews with both mayors, city staff, aldermen, a reporter and the people who filed the complaints.

According to state police findings, council members discussed two matters during one executive session. Both matters dealt with personnel issues, according to notes from the investigation. They discussed asking for Cooney’s resignation and discussed replacements for two vacancies on the council, according to the findings.

The council voted on both matters in public after returning from the closed session. By doing so, the council announced the purpose of the closed session, Dean wrote to one of the complainants.

“The decision to drop the investigation was, ‘Yes, they did it, and it was not intentional,’” Hime said.

Arkansas, Pages 13 on 03/31/2011

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