Beth Coger Wins Case Against Washington County’s JESAP Committee
In November 2022, Beth Coger won election to the Washington County Quorum Court. Before she was sworn in and attended her first meeting as Justice of the Peace for District 9, she filed a lawsuit against members of the Quorum Court Job Evaluation/Salary Administration Program (JESAP) Committee for failing to conduct open meetings which are required by the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the Arkansas County Government Code.
On January 20, 2023, after two days of trial, the judge ruled that “the JESAP committee is a public body and is subject to” the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act and the County Government Code. Both require public notice before meetings are held, and the meetings must be open to the public. Anyone can request notice of the meetings.
Judge Randall Wright ordered the defendants to pay $1,042.02 in costs to JPCoger, “in their official capacity as employees and elected officials of Washington County, Arkansas.” Washington County has not paid those costs.
JP Coger Champions Transparency: Lawsuit Reveals CJC Board’s Misstep with Public Meeting Standards
The Washington County Quorum Court has also created the Criminal Justice Coordinating Board (CJC Board) to make recommendations to the Quorum Court regarding criminal justice resources. It has three subcommittees.
The Pretrial Services Subcommittee of the CJC Board was scheduled to conduct a Zoom meeting on February 7, 2023. The Zoom link did not allow real time viewing or participation by the public. JP Coger and two others requested the meeting be rescheduled for the public to have the opportunity for observation and participation. JP Coger specifically informed the County’s Criminal Justice Coordinator it would be a violation of the Arkansas FOIA and the Arkansas County Government Code for the meeting to be held if the public could not observe in real time. The Subcommittee held its February 7, 2023, meeting. The meeting was not recorded as required by FOIA, “in a sound only format, a video recording with sound and picture or a digital or analog broadcast capable of being recorded.”
JP Coger filed a lawsuit against Washington County and County Judge Patrick Deakins in his official capacity. Trial Judge Mark Hewett ruled the CJC Board Subcommittee meetings were public meetings of a public body and must follow the FOIA and Arkansas County Government Code public meeting and recording requirements. Judge Hewett awarded $5,110.00 in attorney’s fees and $335.00 in costs to JP Coger.
Why is this important?
First, without open meetings and recordings of those meetings, a citizen doesn’t know how, or if, elected officials are properly fulfilling their duties.
Second, it’s the law and it has been the law since 1967. Then the Arkansas Legislature stated its intent in the second provision: “It is vital in a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner so that the electors shall be advised of the performance of public officials and of the decisions that are reached in public activity and in making public policy….”
Third, conflicts of interest may be involved as in the second lawsuit.
The Pretrial Services Subcommittee made a recommendation to the CJC Board of an appropriation of over $2,000,000.00 which the Board accepted with little public discussion. The trial judge specifically found that a $1.5 million grant from that appropriation was awarded to “Returning Home, a non-profit headed by one of the co-chairs and members of the CJC Board.”
Fourth, violations of the law cost taxpayers money.
If the government fails to follow the law and the judge determines the government’s failure was not substantially justified, the judge must award attorney’s fees and costs to the person filing the lawsuit. The total fees and costs awarded to JP Coger were $6,487.02. This does not include Washington County’s attorney’s costs for defending the lawsuits.
PAWPAC applauds JP Coger’s persistence and insistence that the law be followed. She did this as a citizen, not as an elected justice of the peace. She did this in spite of other Washington Quorum Court members treating her unprofessionally and in obstructive ways. This conduct can be observed in the recordings of the 2023 quorum court meetings on YouTube. You are encouraged to attend the Quorum Court meetings to determine for yourself whether the members are conducting themselves in the public’s best interests. Find the next Quorum Court meeting date and information here.
The Freedom of Information Handbook is available at https://arkansaspress.org/freedom-of-information-handbook/.