WASHINGTON COUNTY, Ark. (KNWA/FOX24) — An Arkansas circuit court judge found that Washington County violated the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act in two separate instances.

Beth Coger is the plaintiff in this case. She’s also the newly elected justice of the peace for District 9 and is a co-founder of the Arkansas Justice Reform Coalition.

“This has been going on for years,” she said.

Coger filed the civil lawsuit on November 10, 2022, and represented herself in court.

All of the Division 4 circuit court judges recused themselves from this case, so Judge Randy Wright, the former Division 1 judge of the Eighth Circuit North, came and presided over the case.

In the lawsuit, she named County Judge Joseph Wood, Brian Lester, who is the county attorney and chief of staff for Wood, Justices of the Peace Lisa Ecke and Butch Pond, and county employees Sidney Reynolds and Patty Burchett as defendants.

The lawsuit included two FOIA violations. The first lawsuit regards a notice of a public meeting.

Coger wanted to know when the Jobs Evaluation/Salary Administration Program Committee, also known as JESAP, planned on meeting.

“I specifically asked for notice under FOIA. No one told me,” Coger said. “It’s not good enough to say ‘Well, we might meet at this time.’ That’s not notice.”

According to testimony in the case on December 22, Brian Lester explained to Wright that the JESAP committee discusses personnel issues including pay range, salary, promotion, demotion and job descriptions. They send their recommendations to the Quorum Court Personnel Committee.

According to JESAP meeting minutes from July 11, 2022, members of the committee are JP Lisa Ecke, County Clerk Becky Lewallen, Sheriff Tim Helder, JP Butch Pond, Compensation Consultant Blair Johnanson of the Johanson Group, Human Resources Director Patty Burchett, County Treasures Bobby Hill, Road Department Director Jeff Crowder, HR Director Cassi Wood and County Collector Angela Wood.

JP Pond testified in the case and said that while he’s been attending JESAP meetings for the past 20 years, and that he was on the committee when he was chair of the Personnel Committee in the past, he is not currently a member of the committee.

He also said he never thought about the meetings not being public, but doesn’t know who has the right to declare them public.

“The county wants to build a large jail, but says we have to other things, too, and that’s a lot of talk and no action,” said Coger. “I worked with some members of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee, along with Sarah Moore from AJRC and others, to draft an ordinance for a diversionary case manager for the jail. We kept waiting for it to come to the court and we kept waiting for a JESAP meeting and nothing was there.”

She said she made multiple requests to learn when the next JESAP meeting was. During the hearing, she told Judge Wright JESAP meetings had been posted on the county website calendar before August 2021 but had stopped after that.

In September 2022, when fellow AJRC member Jon Comstock emailed Brian Lester asking if JESAP meetings are public, he replied “The meetings are open to the public, and minutes are taken.”

However, while giving his testimony, he said he was wrong and that because of the nature of what personnel matters are discussed, JESAP meetings are not subject to the open meeting statute.

While Lester was on the stand, Judge Wright asked him who has authority for JESAP. Lester said that they are looking into that right now and because they have not had to answer that question in six years, they have “rolled with it.”

“When I first talked to JP Ecke, she said they’re not public because we deal with catastrophic medical waiver requests, but those don’t have to be mentioned. But, names or even category or even departments,” said Coger. “And if they want to do that, they can always go into executive session. There’s no way that an entire meeting can be an executive session and be legal under FOIA.”

The second FOIA violation in her lawsuit claimed the county did not return documents she requested regarding the 2023 county budget in a timely manner.

“That is very important because we’re talking about millions of dollars,” she said.

On October 12, 2022, she sent a FOIA email to Sidney Reynolds, the county’s director of information technology, and to Patty Burchett.

During the December hearing, Reynold testified that the very next day, he had the documents she requested ready on a flash drive and left it at the fifth-floor desk at the county courthouse for pick up.

He said that he even generated a second copy of the files when he found out about the lawsuit in November.

Coger said she wasn’t told that it was ready for pickup.

“No one responded and I waited and sent a good-faith letter,” she said. “No one responded to my good faith letter.”

She said she was finally told about the flash drive on December 6.

According to the Arkansas FOIA law, government entities have up to three business days to provide requested records. The entity can ask for an extension if the request is large enough.

Ultimately, Judge Wright ruled that the county had violated FOIA laws on both counts. It’s a victory Coger said she wishes she didn’t have to fight so hard to get.

“I had to stand up not just for myself, but for others who wanted to get information from our county government,” she said. “It shouldn’t be that hard.”

Judge Wright did not invalidate all the JESAP meetings not properly promoted to the public, as Coger would have liked. However, the county does have to reimburse her the costs of bringing this lawsuit forward, which she estimates will be around $1,000.

KNWA/FOX 24 did reach out to Brian Lester multiple times for comment and did not hear back. The county has 30 days from the day the judgment is filed to appeal.