County officials split on adding $20,000 to budget to fight Freedom of Information Act decisions

Washington County mulls $20,000 for lawsuit appeals

The Washington County Courthouse stands March 25, 2016, in Fayetteville. (File Photo/NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)

FAYETTEVILLE -- Washington County's justices of the peace on Thursday failed to muster enough votes to approve spending $20,000 appealing a number of lawsuits involving the county.

The Quorum Court split 8-3 in favor of the ordinance, with Justice of the Peace Beth Coger abstaining. Justices of the peace Suki Highers, Evelyn Rios Stafford and Shawndra Washington voted against the proposal to add $20,000 to the 2023 budget of County Attorney Brian Lester. An appropriation ordinance requires 10 votes to be approved in a single reading so the proposal will be on the agenda at the October meeting of the Quorum Court.

County Judge Patrick Deakins said the adverse rulings, holding that the county had violated the open meetings provisions of the Freedom of Information Act and failed to respond to requests for information in a timely manner, would open "a bottomless pit" of litigation in which county government "cannot function" if they are allowed to stand.

"There is no end to it," Deakins said.

Stafford said appealing the court rulings was an example of "government waste and abuse."

"Two different judges, not just one, came to the same conclusion that the county violated the Freedom of Information Act," Stafford said. "What kind of message are we sending? That we're willing to fight to keep government meetings closed?"

Lester told the Quorum Court's Finance and Budget Committee last week the county is appealing rulings in two lawsuits filed by Beth Coger concerning violations of the state's Freedom of Information Act. Lester said that since he is named as a defendant on one of the lawsuits he can't represent the county in that appeal.

Coger, who filed one of her complaints before being elected to serve as justice of the peace and one after her election, filed two separate complaints in Washington County Circuit Court over allegations the county had not followed the open meetings provisions of the law and had not made public records available as required. Judges in both cases ruled in her favor.

Several members of the public spoke against the ordinance during the meeting, asking why the county is proposing to spend $20,000 in an effort to avoid paying about $6,500 in costs and damages awarded to Coger.

Coger said the lawsuits were only filed after she spent years battling to make government records available and meetings open to the public.

"I'm not giving up. I'm not going away," Coger said. "If that's the plan, it's not working."

Also Thursday, the justices of the peace considered a pair of conditional use permits for businesses in unincorporated areas of the county, but both were left on the agenda for the Quorum Court's October meeting.

The justices of the peace heard an appeal of a request for a conditional use permit for the Beaver Lake Tiny Homes development. The Washington County Planning Board voted 3-2 in favor of the project in March, but any conditional use permit requires a minimum of four affirmative votes. The denial of the permit request was appealed to the Quorum Court. The Quorum Court put an ordinance to deny the permit on the agenda for the October meeting.

The Beaver Lake Tiny Homes development is proposed for 3.7 acres of land at 18664 Saddle Shop Lane, northeast of Springdale. The development plans call for 27 home sites with the individual, premanufactured homes being 15 feet by 41 feet or 11 feet by 46 feet. The homes would be owned by the residents who would lease the sites from the developer. Each home would be intended for up to two occupants and have a private driveway for two vehicles.

The developer said there are two similar projects in the Rogers area, one at 1014 W. Olive St. and the other at 1800 Monte Ne Road.

Area residents submitted a list of concerns, beginning with the proximity of the project to Beaver Lake and the absence of a review by the Beaver Water District of the potential impact on the lake, which is the source of drinking water for much of Northwest Arkansas.

The neighbors were also concerned about the septic system that would be needed for the project. According to neighbors, other septic systems in the area have failed in the past. Other concerns included the rental nature of the development, which the residents said would devalue their homes.

The Quorum Court also discussed a request for a conditional use permit for the Meyer Boys Garage. The automobile restoration business is on 3 acres of land at 18263 Harmon Road.

According to information provided to the County's Planning Department, the permit is for a single-employee auto restoration business in a 40-by-50-foot building that is already on the site. The hours of operation are expected to be from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The county received no comments from neighboring property owners, according to the planning staff. Conditions for approval included not allowing any vehicle fluids to leak onto the ground and that the business not house any salvage, nondrivable vehicles.

County zoning

Land in unincorporated Washington County is zoned for agricultural or single-family residential use. All other uses require the property owner to obtain a conditional use permit through the countys planning process. The permits must be approved by the Washington County Planning Board and the Quorum Court.

Source: NWA Democrat-Gazette