Fayetteville Advertising and Promotion Commission executive director Marilyn Heifner was placed on paid leave Monday while the commission awaits the results of an investigation into whether she violated the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.
A complaint filed by the Northwest Arkansas Times with the city prosecutor last week alleges Heifner did not immediately supply a reporter with a requested public document regarding the lease and purchase of the Old Post Office building.
According to the newspaper, reporter Joel Walsh asked Heifner on multiple occasions for a copy of a counteroffer made by Old Post Office building owner Ron Bumpass, a document Bumpass told the reporter he had already delivered to Heifner.
The newspaper, which reported the incident last week, alleges Heifner repeatedly denied knowledge of the counteroffer and it wasn’t until the reporter submitted a formal letter of request that she finally produced the document.
Heifner told the newspaper she did not believe she violated the law since she’d handed over the document after receiving a formal written request.
“I got the FOI request and turned it over immediately,” Heifner told the newspaper.
According to the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act, citizens of the state may request access to public records “in person, by telephone, by mail, by facsimile transmission, by electronic mail, or by other electronic means.”
The commission’s decision came after an hour-long private executive session held at the end of Monday’s regular meeting, a privilege allowed by Arkansas’ Freedom of Information Act when personnel matters are up for discussion.
Following the meeting, Mayor Lioneld Jordan, who also serves on the commission, read a motion that Heifner be placed on administrative leave pending the investigation. The motion, which passed unanimously, states that Heifner may continue to receive benefits and draw on her salary which the commission recently raised by 5 percent to $84,000.
City attorney Kit Williams said Fayetteville Prosecuting Attorney Casey Jones is currently taking statements regarding the investigation and that he believed the process could last at least another week.
Why Heifner originally withheld the documents from the reporter is still unclear. She was unavailable for comment after Monday’s decision.
An email exchange released by the newspaper seems to suggest that Heifner was afraid media attention to Bumpass’ counteroffer could spoil the original deal.
“I’d say sit tight,” wrote Heifner after being asked for the document. “I’d rather you not call (Bumpass) and get him mad, so the deal won’t go through.”
Commissioner Bob Davis wondered out loud during Monday’s meeting whether Bumpass was using the newspaper to try and raise the price. “I’m just speaking off my mind,” said Davis, who later initiated the executive session meeting.
Both Heifner and Commissioner Brandon Karn last month said they believed the original lease agreement was satisfactory to Bumpass and they anticipated a quick deal which would have given the keys to the commission by Feb. 1. That agreement called for a $5,000 per month lease with an option to buy it for $1 million after one year.
The counteroffer calls for a $7,500 per month lease with an option to buy it for $1.5 million.
Each commissioner present Monday said the counteroffer was unacceptable and that if they were to pursue a purchase of the building, they’d have to come up with a new plan.
“The way it was originally proposed, I thought it made sense,” said commission member Justin Tennant, who also serves as a City Council alderman in Ward 3. “But so many gears have gotten shifted on us now.”
The group eventually voted to order an appraisal and building inspection before discussing their own counteroffer.
If that process is complete before next month’s regular meeting, the commission may call a special meeting in late February or early March.
Correction: Bob Davis was originally quoted as saying, “That’s just me wondering, though.” His actual words were, “I’m just speaking off my mind.” This correction was made above.