A Strange FOIA Response About the Fayetteville Housing Crisis

A Routine Request

Q: Who may obtain records?

A: “Any citizen of the State of Arkansas” may inspect, obtain copies of and photograph public records. “Citizen” includes corporations. A requester’s purpose or motive in seeking access to particular records is irrelevant. Nothing in the FOIA restricts the subsequent use of information obtained under the act.

The Arkansas Freedom of Information Handbook

On the evening of Tuesday, March 12, 2024, I filed what I thought was a routine FOIA request to the City of Fayetteville. It was my first time ever requesting documents from the city and I was seeking information about what went into preparing a particular resolution. (You can read the whole thing here). But what I received back was anything but routine.

Along with the requested documents, there was also an unusual three-page letter tucked in, sent by a lone elected official, that was not one of the requested documents. It appears to be a newly written personal note aimed at me. In all my time dealing with FOIA, both in office and as a private citizen, I’ve never seen anything like this letter. It made false assumptions about my motives for filing a FOIA request and appeared to attack my character. I’m concerned about the chilling effect that messages like this can have on open government. I’m writing this blog post primarily to send a message to the public: As an Arkansas citizen, don’t ever let any public official get away with chastising you for requesting public documents. All Arkansas citizens have a right to view public documents under FOIA without their motives or character being questioned.

I’ll get to the contents of the letter and some of the troubling things I learned from the FOIA request in a moment, but first, some background.

The Back Story: Declaring a Housing Crisis in the City of Fayetteville

In the Summer 2023, Fayetteville was declared the “Second Most Challenging Small City in America to Find a Place to Rent” (A year later, we are now the #1 Most Challenging Small City to Rent). Sonia Harvey, one of the two renters on the Fayetteville City Council, had just been forced to step down from her elected position because she had to move out of her Ward due to not being able to find affordable, suitable housing for her and her family. (And now she’s having to move again).

That summer, a group of ordinary citizens started talking with each other with the idea of urging the city to try new things to address this crisis. Part of their goal was to do their work in public as part of an inclusive, grassroots effort. Starting in September 2023, they held a series of three public meetings. The first meeting dovetailed with Council Member D’Andre Jones’s Ward 1 meeting, and they found a willing ally in Jones, who agreed to help publicize their efforts. The final meeting was held in February 2024.

The group formed a mailing list of everyone who attended one of the public meetings. These meetings were open for anyone to attend – some were Fayetteville residents, some were people who’d been pushed out of the city by rising rents, and some were folks who wanted to live here but were shut out. Hundreds of people showed up. Individuals shared heartbreaking stories about atrocious living conditions and about being the victim of sexual assault because they couldn’t find alternative living arrangements. Collectively and without the involvement of any city council members, they ended up drafting their own resolution declaring a Housing Crisis in the City of Fayetteville. It urged the city to take certain policy actions that this grassroots group of voters collectively decided on. They found an enthusiastic sponsor in Council Member Jones, but it’s important to note that Jones did not write it. The resolution was written by the people.

Council Member Jones started going through the proper channels at the city to get his resolution on a City Council agenda. Meanwhile, members of the public started the process of lining up co-sponsors themselves. In order, they approached Council Members Sarah Moore, Bob Stafford, and Mike Wiederkehr first, with the intention of then moving on to the rest of the council. Council Member Moore signed on as a co-sponsor. Council Member Stafford told the group that he wanted to bring some amendments forward in public at a City Council meeting before signing on.

But then… we get to the response of Council Member Wiederkehr. The FOIA documents show that Wiederkehr went on to write his own counter-resolution behind the scenes with the intention of sidelining the citizen-led document, and he purposely left three of his colleagues in the dark until the last minute. The last-minute surprise is what sparked the FOIA request.

Tuesday, May 12 text messages to me from Fayetteville City Council Member Bob Stafford after he learned about a surprise walk-on response to the citizen-led Housing Crisis resolution. “Blake” is the Assistant City Attorney. I filed a FOIA request on my own to get an understanding of what the heck was happening. No one asked me to do it. My FOIA covered the whole city government, including Bob, who is my husband. When he called after his meetings to ask about dinner plans, I had to tell him, “By the way, I FOIAed you and the rest of the City Council.” Side note: I guess I’ve discovered a unique way for the spouses of public servants to keep tabs on them!

A Strange FOIA Response

The FOIA response came back last Friday, March 15, and everyone at the city provided the documents I requested in a timely manner. That is super awesome and something for the city to be proud of. I’m proud of my city!

A couple of the documents surprised me. In one, Council Member Wiederkehr seems to be discussing voting strategies with four of his colleagues. In another, he communicates with the City Attorney’s office about how these same colleagues would prefer to vote. In a third, he says declaring a housing crisis “borders on manipulation”, seems to argue the housing shortage is equally as bad across the nation (which is false and not supported by the facts), and worries about the “optics” of voting against the citizen-led resolution.

Council Member Wiederkehr’s counter-resolution does not declare a Housing Crisis and does not call on the city to form a Task Force. The FOIA documents show Wiederkher purposely leaving some council members out of the process of seeking co-sponsors. They also show him purposely asking the City Attorney’s office to hold off sending out his resolution to non-sponsors until the last possible moment before the agenda session, leaving them in the dark until hours before the meeting on purpose. That’s his right, but neither of these things seems very inclusive or consensus-building.

Why Council Member Wiederkehr was unaware of the months-long public efforts of ordinary citizens is something only he can answer. But I do know the city regularly walks on multi-million dollar budget adjustments at agenda sessions, and none of the council members have been complaining about being surprised by those.

“Attention Seeking, Self Aggrandizement Document”

Finally, as I mentioned at the top, there was a file labeled “Note” that was a new document created just for my FOIA. It contains unwarranted speculation about the motivations of Council Member D’Andre Jones and the group of voters who put together the original resolution.

“It resonated as a stand alone, attention seeking, self aggrandizement, document in my eyes, which actually ignored our current efforts, did not build upon or improve our existing efforts, was condescending toward staff’s actual hard work in this arena, and was disappointing…. an opportunity for a rather small group of individuals to sufficiently stack the deck to speak, with their preferred track force members in order to gain more influence than they currently possess.”

– Council Member Mike Wiederkehr, on Page 1 of the Note, speaking about the Housing Crisis Resolution written by voters

Personally, I’d never go out of my way to publicly insult my own voters, but that’s just me.

Near the end, it makes false assumptions about my motivations for filing a FOIA. “I can only interpret this FOIA request as an act of protest that more than one Council member agreed to co-sponsor, whereas only Council member Moore had agreed to co-sponsor the other resolution…. I find it offensive that rather than engage in appropriate public debate of alternative proposals, the course of action would be to attack the messenger rather than the message.”

To be clear, a FOIA request is not an attack. It’s a request for public information.

I’ve never gotten a letter attached to a FOIA response, and I found the whole thing odd. Here’s the whole thing:

Defending Arkansas’s FOIA Laws

Again, I am publicizing this because I don’t want ordinary Arkansas citizens to ever receive a letter like this. I’ll be fine – I worked for 20 years as a television journalist and won two Emmy Awards, and I’ve seen a lot worse. But YOU deserve to know that it’s inappropriate for any public official to question your right to public documents. I don’t want the next person to have to think twice before they ask to know what’s going on inside City Hall.

As the Arkansas FOIA Handbook states, “A requester’s purpose or motive in seeking access to particular records is irrelevant.”

There are two petitions circulating right now to strengthen Arkansas’s FOIA laws. (Read them here and here). If they get enough signatures, they will be on the November ballot. Look for folks asking for signatures at Farmer’s Markets and other events. I endorse signing both of them.

7 thoughts on “A Strange FOIA Response About the Fayetteville Housing Crisis”

  1. After reading on April 2nd that the second resolution by the people and co-sponsors, presented by D’Andre had passed I decided to do more research before getting too excited. I am grateful to have found this very well-written and telling article. Thank you! Wonderful work team. I know the majority in council & of the JP’s rule against my favor, so this is a big win. I am proud. Cheers to moving forward with this well over due agenda benefiting this true crisis. :))

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