Today's Paper Arkansas News Public Notices Elections Core Values Newsletters Sports Archive Obits Puzzles Opinion Story Ideas
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT

MASTERSON ONLINE: Brought into the light

by Mike Masterson | November 12, 2022 at 3:29 a.m.

The Arkansas Transparency in Government group (ArkTIGG), working in association with a member investigator, has released a report showing the 10 public school superintendents who received the largest compensation packages during fiscal year July 1, 2021, through June 30, 2022.

The total for those 10 obviously wouldn't include compensation boosts since July.

Jimmie Cavin of Cabot said he compiled for TIGG from several public records that include each superintendent's salary, auto allowance, bonuses, stipends, vacation, and sick leave as well as fuel and vehicle maintenance, altogether totaling more than $2.5 million.

Cavin explained in the report that he acquired information through emailed Freedom of Information Act requests for the superintendents' contracts as well as other payments of any kind.

He said he discovered that Mike Poore of the Little Rock School District led all compensation amounts with payments of $332,019.

He's followed in order by superintendents John Colbert at Fayetteville, $287,664; Tony Thurman at Cabot, $286,257; Marlin Berry at Rogers $282,127; Debbie Bruick-Jones at Bentonville, $270,408; Jared Cleveland at Springdale, $265,100; Terry Morawski at Fort Smith, $260,445; Jeff Collum at Conway, $242,83; Karen Walter at Bryant, $212,138; and Greg Pilewski at North Little Rock, $206,300.

Cavin told me his examination revealed some difficulties with public transparency. "Only the school districts in North Little Rock, Bryant and Rogers accurately depict the actual compensation of their superintendents on their websites," he said. There's no legal requirement for them to disclose such information.

"School boards can decide to pay their superintendents whatever they choose, but the public also has a right to know what that is," he said.

"These types of reports are just one area ArkTIGG is focused on, and I'm excited to be a part of it," he told me. "The passion the group has for transparency is really something to behold and provides great public service."

I readily agree with Cavin and our state's TIGG leaders that those elected and paid by the public to honorably, legally and ethically conduct the public's business should do so under the light of public scrutiny on every level.

The state's FOIA law spells out exactly how to follow its mandates and the information that must be made available to taxpayers who foot the bills.

FOIA handbooks are readily available. Plus I assume most school boards have attorneys who can read and understand this relatively brief law and advise their boards accordingly.

Our state currently has at least seven local self-named and directed TIGG chapters in Bella Vista, Conway, Fort Smith, Harrison, Hot Springs, Gravette and Jonesboro.

I'm hoping concerned citizens in all 75 Arkansas counties will follow suit and form their own chapter to ensure their citizens are being kept fully and legally informed of how their public bodies perform.

There also are regular day-long regional symposiums of TIGG chapters where speakers describe various successes in using FOIA and how best to achieve them.

Those living in counties interested in forming their own chapters can Google Arkansas TIGG Chapters or reach out for details via email to Dr. Bill Ray Lewis at cappsgoblin@hotmail.com. or (870) 741-1269.

Bulldog attorney Joey McCutchen of Fort Smith, with his law partners Chip Sexton and Stephen Napurano, likely lead our state in pursuing FOIA violations over illegally closed meetings and withheld public records.

He said his firm in recent years has filed between 15 and 20 FOIA cases involving violations of both the open meetings and open records requirements.

As a TIGG member, McCutchen also believes every county needs its own chapter today.

"The need is critical for several reasons," he said. "TIGG chapters hold our government officials and entities fully and fairly accountable and demand sunshine in government. TIGG chapters protect our right to know. TIGG members push for proactive legislation.

"We also believe it's time the Arkansas Legislature define in legal terms what a meeting is, require meaningful FOIA training of government entities, and put some teeth in our sunshine law."

At this point you might want to ask yourself why more concerned attorneys aren't involved in aggressively defending the public's right to know.

I'd guess it's because doing so isn't easy in a largely rural state with many smaller communities and counties. It can involve filing suit purely in the public interest against friends, family members, golfing and civic club acquaintances, business owners and others who serve on local boards. Yet accountability is crucial to an open society built on a foundation of laws.

All the more reason to appreciate lawyers who will pursue FOIA cases in their city and beyond.

It's been my experience after 51 years in this business that whatever is done in darkness remains that way unless and until truth forces those activities into the light. That's exactly why we need and have an FOIA.

Yet it's ineffective if not regularly used by the citizens and enforced by significant penalties rather than tsk-tsks and wrist slaps.

I asked Cavin if his TIGG chapter plans further investigations into public bodies. He said there are several planned. "If you look at my history you will see that one part of what I do is investigations.

"For example, I brought to light Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott's city credit card usage issues. That led to other issues being brought to light such as violations of FOIA laws and tampering with public records, which are currently subjects of criminal investigations and lawsuits."

He said that what he discovered after initially looking at school board activity in Cabot and North Little Rock generated the idea to examine and report on superintendents at the state's 10 largest school districts to see if there are similarities and patterns.

He said another idea is to take a deep dive into campaign finance on municipal and county levels, "which is an area that seems to be in the dark. Preliminary work on that has also revealed some interesting information."

Somehow I would imagine it does just that, don't you, valued readers? I strongly suspect most public agencies here and in every community and state could do with top-to-bottom disinfecting by the light of day.

Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.

Print Headline: Brought into the light

ADVERTISEMENT

Sponsor Content

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT