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FOIA, Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority and the Family Enterprise Center


Michael Tilley joins the show to discuss the new FOIA restrictions, the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority and the naming of the Family Enterprise Center at UAFS.

Kyle Kellams: Ahead this hour, Crystal Bridges is opening ‘Annie Leibovitz at Work’ today. Yesterday, there was a media preview, led by Annie Leibovitz about what she has to say about her work and her career, later this hour. First, let's find out what Michael Tilley with Talk Business & Politics has to say about some of what transpired this week. He joins us from his office in Fort Smith. Happy Friday, Michael.

Michael Tilley: Well, thank you, sir. Let me know, I have no connection to Crystal Bridges. I don't know anybody who works there, so there's no self-serving. But you know, what, 10-11 years in, it seems like two or three times a year, every year, Crystal Bridges continues just to impress for some of these great events and exhibits. So kudos to them.

KK: Alright. I mentioned that you're in your office in Fort Smith, but you've been in Little Rock where there were discussions aboutthe Freedom of Information Act in Arkansas. On Monday, one slew of bills was introduced, by the time they were passed they were different bills, weren't they?

MT: Yeah, vastly different bills. So, Gov. Sarah Sanders wanted exemptions to the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act, which is considered one of, if not the, best laws among all 50 states, in terms of government transparency. She wanted to make some significant changes. Three primary changes: one, she wanted to change which records were available in terms of her travel records and security protocols. She wanted to include what's called the federal exemption. The federal exemption essentially limits any deliberation among state agencies and state officials about policy and other government governance matters. In terms of the federal government, this is what we hit on, Kyle, back in 2014 and 2015, we were wanting to understand the negotiations behind the federal consent decree in Fort Smith. They were public bodies talking about a public water and sewer system that we use as public taxpayer dollars, but the public had no right under that federal exemption to understand what kind of deliberations and discussions were going on. That's what Gov. Sanders wanted to implement in Arkansas.

There's a retroactivity clause, which was dubious at best. The bottom line is that after several amendments, several versions of the bill, it eventually got cut back just to the security provisions of her travel records, which is still problematic. There's still a little bit of a camel’s nose under the tent aspect to that. But that's all that got passed.

It was amazing, Kyle, to see some very disparate political groups; you had Progressive Women of Arkansas next to the Pulaski County Republican Committee. You had across the political spectrum, people showing up and saying, 'No, no, we're not going to do this to our Freedom of Information Act. We're not going to let you guys take away our ability to know what you guys are doing.' And like I said, this crusty old cynical journalist was just encouraged—maybe I got a little bit more energy, reinvigorated—from seeing democracy in action, so to speak, but they pushed back.

There is concern, even Gov. Sanders said it in Thursday press conference, when she was asked about the FOIA bill that she eventually passed, she essentially said she's not finished and her efforts to make changes to the to the act aren't over. So, there was some scuttlebutt about folks saying we may need to get a citizens initiative to get the law into the constitution so that governors and legislators can change it in the future. But essentially transparency advocates won this week. And so, we'll continue to see what happens with FOI in the future.

KK: You know, with this special session, there weren't that many topics. There was the Freedom of Information Act, there was a tax cut, there was some discussion about COVID and masking going forward. If you go to a regular session, there can be a waterfall of legislation. You wonder if it would have received as much concentrated opposition had it been a regular session? 

MT: Well, I think it would have, because the changes were so deep, the cuts. The word ‘gutting’ was used quite a bit by folks who testified. I think it would have brought out folks. And maybe even more folks because you would have had other issues going on and you would have had a lot of folks that were there for other issues also pushing for this, but I don't think it would have changed. If they try to make those changes again in the 2025, regular session, I anticipate a similar outpouring of public resistance.

KK: The Arkansas Real Estate Commission is investigating Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority. Why?

MT: Well, that's a good question. Well, that's an easy question to answer, but how they're going to investigate and on what grounds, I'm not going to pretend to know, Daniel Mann, who's the executive director of the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority, part of his contract was amended to provide him what’s called a merit pay, a 2% merit pay on property sales. It's essentially a commission. So, there were several realtors in the Fort Smith area developers who said, wait a minute, Arkansas law is that you cannot collect commission on real estate unless you're a broker or real estate agent, that type of thing. And so, they filed a complaint with the Arkansas Real Estate Commission this week. We had been told that complaint had been file, but without the real estate commission acknowledging it and saying they're going to investigate it, there really wasn't anything there. They’ve now said they're going to investigate. By the way, this 2% was added to Mr. Mann's contract in December 2021.

Dalton Person, the attorney for the FCRA, has said that they're wrong, the 2% Commission is allowed under federal law. He said they looked at it before they even put it in place, and it's legit. So, it's going be interesting to see how the real estate commission comes down on this because I'm not a student of federal law and how federal real estate law—especially as it applies to mortgages, and in the case of what Mr. Person is talking about, how that either supersedes or counteracts Arkansas’ law on who can collect commissions. We'll be watching this investigation closely. We’ve asked the redevelopment authority about how much money Mr. Mann has collected under the 2% once we get that we'll report on that also.

KK: And the University of Arkansas Fort Smith has this wonderful Family Enterprise Center and Chancellor Terisa Riley has an idea for a new name, what is that?

MT: It will be named after the late Jim Walcott. Here's another encouraging story, this has just been an encouraging week for me, I guess. I've known Mr. Walcott, he was head of Weldon, Williams & Lick for a long time, one of the longest organized businesses in Fort Smith. I mean, it started in 1898. Mr. Walcott was widely known inside the business and civic circles for making things happen. But he was, he was so allergic, I guess, is probably the best word to any kind of public attention or public praise.

He refused to do anything that might shed some light on him. It wasn't about him. He died on May 7, after a long battle with cancer. And I'm sure if Mr. Walcott were alive, he would not be happy with this naming, but they're going to name the family enterprise center at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith after him. I think it's a great move and kudos to the university officials for coming up with this idea and First National Bank of Fort Smith for providing a lot of money to support the renaming effort. It's a good move, it’s encouraging and it's a true acknowledgement of everything Mr. Walcott did and the things that he did that will continue to benefit Fort Smith. For example, he was one of the initial movers to push for the creation of the medical school and we now have in Fort Smith.

KK: Well, an encouraging week from Michael Tilly that actually began with a Dallas Cowboy 40 Nothing shut out of the giants. You had a great five or six days.

MT: Yeah. Which means that cowboys will get nowhere near the Super Bowl now.

KK: I knew that you would go searching for that cloud instead of the silver lining

MT: When it comes to the Cowboys, the cloud is theirs.

KK: You can read about everything we've talked about, minus the Cowboys, at talkbusiness.net. We'll talk again next week Michael, thank you.

MT: You're welcome, sir.

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Kyle Kellams is KUAF's news director and host of Ozarks at Large.
Michael Tilley is the executive editor of Talk Business & Politics.
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