On Nov. 6, 2018, Arkansas voters approved the expansion of two casinos in Garland and Crittenden counties. The measure also authorized the construction of two new ones in Jefferson and Pope counties.
The casino in Pope County has generated much debate, including the conflict between state and local control. The majority of voters in Pope County rejected the amendment despite statewide approval. Pope County voters took the additional step of passing an ordinance that gives residents a chance to vote on which vendor gets the license to operate a casino in the county.
But recently another issue has arisen regarding Pope County which concerns political transparency. An article published Aug. 13 in the Arkansas-Democrat Gazette titled "Casino talks held illegally, residents say" reports that a Pope County justice of the peace and seven other residents filed a complaint with the county prosecutor concerning private meetings the county judge and some members of the quorum court held to discuss the competition for a casino license.
The state's Open Public Meetings Act states that "all meetings, formal or informal, special or regular, of the governing bodies of all municipalities, counties ... shall be public meetings."
Why is it important that governing bodies' meetings be open to residents? Academic research by Dr. Brian Adams titled "Public Meetings and the Democratic Process" published in the journal Public Administration Review explains that public meetings offer a venue for residents to help in setting the agenda for their governments. Another essay, "When Public Participation Leads to Trust," published in the same journal by Dr. XiaoHu Wang and Dr. Montgomery Van Wart, concludes that public participation affects trust when residents' participation results in high-quality services that the public wants. Residents' participation is a necessary ingredient in promoting trust in government.
For county residents to be able to participate in the decision-making process, counties should ensure that residents are informed in a reasonable amount of time of the date, time and place of the meeting to allow enough time for residents to plan to attend. The Open Public Meetings Act requires that stakeholders such as media be notified "at least two hours before the meeting takes place in order that the public shall have representatives at the meeting."
More needs to be done, especially if it's an emergency or special meeting. Officials could also publish information about meetings online on county websites or social media pages.
In our 2018 report "Access Arkansas: County-Level Web Transparency," Terra Aquia, Joyce Ajayi, and I found that only 18 counties publish information about quorum courts' meeting times and places. In addition, only 12 counties publish the agendas for the meetings online.
As for informing residents on what was deliberated at these meetings, only 11 counties publish their minutes online. It is encouraging that some counties such as Faulkner County livestream Quorum Court meetings, which provides residents an opportunity to follow the deliberations without having to be physically present.
Residents' participation in the decision-making process is a good thing. It improves decision-making, legitimizes government officials' actions, and generates a better-informed public. Arkansas counties should utilize all the communication methods they have to ensure increased resident participation in the decision-making process.
Let's make Arkansas counties more transparent by expanding the ways we inform county residents to consistently include online publication.
Mavuto Kalulu is a policy analyst at the Arkansas Center for Research in Economics at the University of Central Arkansas, the author of the policy brief "Let the Sun Shine In: Improving Access to Arkansas Counties' Financial Information" and the lead author of "Access Arkansas: County-Level Web Transparency." The views expressed are those of the author.
Editorial on 09/20/2019