Walton Arts Center requests attorney general’s opinion on public status

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Some members of the Walton Arts Center’s board of directors want to know if the organization is considered a public entity, and therefore subject to open records and meetings laws associated with the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.

On Tuesday, State Rep. Uvalde Lindsey sent an official request, drafted by Walton Arts Center attorney Marshall Ney, to Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel asking for a legal opinion on the matter.

The request comes after board member and Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce president Steve Clark, who is also a former Arkansas attorney general, pressed the issue in the July 26 board meeting. Clark said he and other board members expressed concern on the matter at the previous meeting on May 8 during discussions that occurred after the media were asked to leave the room.

“If we are in violation of the freedom of information act, if we are in violation of the governance policy of this organization, I believe trying to take 4 1/2 months to figure this out is unacceptable,” Clark said during the July 26 meeting in response to a suggestion that the matter be revisited in September.

Clark then suggested the arts center seek an attorney general opinion.

“We’ve heard from previous council that it (whether or not FOIA applied to the WAC) is unclear and we’ve heard from current council that it is unclear,” said Clark. “There’s one way we can get it made clear and that’s to ask the Attorney General.”

The Arkansas Freedom of Information Act stipulates under section 25-19-106 that “all meetings, formal or informal, special or regular of the governing bodies of all municipalities…or organizations of the State of Arkansas…supported wholly or in part by public funds or expending public funds, shall be public meetings.”

Walton Arts Center was created as a joint venture in 1987 between the City of Fayetteville and the University of Arkansas; two entities that are subject to Arkansas open records laws. The arts center’s board is made up of five Fayetteville City Council-appointed members, five members appointed by the Board of Trustees for the University of Arkansas and 10 at-large members.

A contract between the Walton Arts Center and the City of Fayetteville that provides $289,000 each year to the arts center for parking related services stipulates that “contracts and documents prepared while performing city contractual work are subject to the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).” The arts center also occasionally receives public funds through contributions from the Fayetteville Advertising and Promotions Commission.

Walton Arts Center officials, however, maintain that a certain amount of privacy is important when it comes to handling private donors.

“It would be premature to have discussions about a gift to the arts center appear in the newspaper before that gift is made,” Lane told a Northwest Arkansas Times reporter.

In the five-page letter seeking McDaniel’s legal opinion, Ney said 95 percent of the arts center’s budget is funded exclusively by private sources.

“Even if FOIA could be deemed to apply,” wrote Ney, “it would appear to only apply to the extent
relevant to the task of public business, which would not appear to include its management of private money, entertainment decisions and the like, but only to its use of the 5 percent of its annual operating budget that constitutes public money.”

According to the state’s website, Attorney General Opinion requests are typically answered within 30 days of receipt.

Walton Arts Center request for AG opinion

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