FAYETTEVILLE — Washington County is planning its first “virtual” Quorum Court meeting Thursday, and County Attorney Brian Lester said technical and legal questions are still being addressed.
Lester said the county has been working on plans to use the Zoom meeting app to allow justices of the peace and members of the public to participate in the meeting without attending in person. The Quorum Court meeting room will also be set up with video screens so up to 10 members of the public could view the meeting there.
Juvenile court expansion
Washington County’s justices of the peace have been considering a $5.3 million bond issue to expand the county’s juvenile courts facility. Circuit Judge Stacey Zimmerman now hears the bulk of the juvenile court cases. The county is scheduled to add another circuit court judge in January 2021, who would also handle juvenile court cases. The expansion would double the 13,000 square feet of space now used by the juvenile court system. The bonds would be paid for by money collected in court costs and fines.
Source: NWA Democrat-Gazette
“Our IT department has been working on this for the last two weeks,” Lester said Wednesday. “We’ve had some Zoom conferences and a bid opening, and we’re having a test meeting later this afternoon. IT has reached out to all of the JPs to work with them and make sure they’re able to participate.”
Lester said questions have been raised about whether the Quorum Court can legally hold a meeting by teleconference or by other remote conferencing technologies.
Lindsey Bailey French, legal counsel for the Association of Arkansas Counties, wrote in a post on the organization’s website state law as written doesn’t allow such meetings. State law provides the justices of the peace set the date, time and location of the meetings of the quorum court in January after they are elected, and “thereafter, the justices shall assemble each calendar month at a regular time and place as established by ordinance,” according to the association.
Lester said the county has contacted some state legislators to try and amend or clarify the law to allow teleconferencing or other remote technology meetings in emergency situations. Washington County Judge Joseph Wood declared a county emergency in response to the covid-19 pandemic March 16, and county meetings since have been canceled, including the March meeting of the Quorum Court.
State Rep. Robin Lundstrum, R-Elm Springs, represents parts of Washington and Benton counties. The state Legislature began meeting in a fiscal session Wednesday, and Lundstrum said she has spoken with other legislators about introducing a bill or resolution allowing quorum court meetings by remote conferencing.
“They’re trying to be extremely cautious, and I don’t blame them,” Lundstrum said of local governments. “There’s got to be something we can do to keep the public informed and safe and healthy at the same time.”
State Sen. Lance Eads, R-Springdale, said Friday the legislative Joint Budget Committee approved an amendment to the state’s Freedom of Information Act to allow governing bodies, including quorum courts, to use teleconferencing and other video-meeting technology when the governor has declared an emergency, as has been done with the covid-19 coronavirus.
The authorization would end when the emergency declaration expires or, for the current emergency, by Dec. 31. The governing bodies would still be required to comply with public notice provisions and to make arrangements for public attendance and participation in the meetings.
Eads said the Legislature has recessed until Wednesday. When the session resumes, the amendment must be approved by both the House and the Senate before it can be sent to Hutchinson for his approval. The amendment includes an emergency clause allowing the changes to take effect immediately once the bill is signed.
Benton County has had Quorum Court and committee meetings since County Judge Barry Moehring declared an emergency in that county last month. Moehring said the county used a teleconference call with justices of the peace participating directly and members of the public able to listen to the call on a speaker phone in the lobby outside the meeting room. If a member of the public wanted to comment on any agenda items, he could enter to speak, Moehring said.
George Spence, Benton County attorney, said he was aware of the association’s interpretation of the law, but he chose to rely on a pair of Arkansas attorney general opinions saying teleconference meetings were permissible. One of those opinions was issued in regard to a school board meeting and the other a city council meeting.
Lester said his opinion after speaking with several county attorneys is Washington County should proceed with the remote meeting.
“I think the courts would ultimately uphold our use of videoconferencing,” he said.
Eva Madison, Washington County justice of the peace for District 9 in Fayetteville, said she’s concerned about the county complying with the state law and is also concerned potential problems with technology could prevent members of the Quorum Court or the public from viewing, hearing and participating in the meeting. She wondered whether the April 16 meeting was necessary.
“I understand state law requires us to meet monthly, but it also allows the county judge to cancel meetings,” Madison said.
NW News on 04/13/2020