- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Arkansas newspapers:

Texarkana Gazette, Aug. 30, 2016

Two sides to story of Arkansas city’s “debtor’s prison” lawsuit

Sherwood, Arkansas, and Pulaski County have been in the news all across the nation this week.

The spotlight stems from a class-action lawsuit filed Tuesday accusing the city and county of running a modern-day debtor’s prison in their zeal to prosecute bad checks and collect the funds due.

According to the lawsuit, filed by four residents who had been jailed over bad checks along with the American Civil Liberties Union and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Sherwood, which collects bad checks for Pulaski County as well, traps low-income residents with bounced checks into a cycle of fines and fees on top of what they owe on the worthless checks. When the total becomes too much for them to pay, it often means a stay in jail. The plaintiffs further claim Sherwood holds court proceedings in secrecy and that defendants are often deprived of counsel.

The suit details cases where bounced checks for small amounts turn into thousands of dollars in penalties and fees. There is a suggestion that the city is dependent on revenue from the fines and fees as well and that the collection process is more about profit than justice.

Maybe, maybe not.

You see, there is another side to this that isn’t emphasized nearly as much as it should be. And that’s how long the city had to pursue these bad debts.

In one case, several bounced checks for about $200 total turned into more than $3,000 in fines and fees, and last month the man responsible got 90 days in jail. That sounds excessive, until you consider authorities tried for six years to get him to pay. This is a common thread in these stories. Jail and added costs come after considerable time and effort to collect.

There are two sides here. Maybe the plaintiffs have a point. Maybe the city is doing what it has to do to collect what is owed to the victims. We’ll have to wait until the case gets to court to know more.

But we can say one thing for sure: If you don’t want fines, fees and jail time for bounced checks, then don’t bounce checks.

___

The Daily Citizen, Aug. 28, 2016

Should publisher hold public office?

The decision of Alderman David Pruitt to resign from from the Beebe City Council and not file for re-election brings up an interesting question.

No, it doesn’t concern Pruitt pleading guilty to a misdemeanor for voting twice in the March primary, but whether a person who reports the news, such as a newspaper publisher or editor, should hold a public office.

With Pruitt bowing out, Lee McLane, owner and publisher of The Beebe News, is running unopposed for the Ward 1, Position 1 seat and possibly will be appointed to fill out the rest of his term this year as well.

McLane certainly isn’t the first newspaper publisher to run for or hold a public office. Most recently in White County, Barth Grayson ran for mayor in Bald Knob in 2014 while still operating the Bald Knob Banner.

There’s also no indication that McLane is biased in her reporting on the City Council or won’t be a good alderman.

This isn’t about those things. The question concerns whether a publisher/editor/reporter can remain objective or be seen as objective in the duty to report on the council while part of the council.

Our role in the newspaper business is to be the eyes and the ears of the public. We can do this because we’re under no obligation to those we cover other than to accurately report what’s happening.

The role of city officials is to protect the interests of the city, even if that at times means withholding information that does not have to be presented in a public meeting. For example, we are not privy to what takes place in executive sessions.

McLane will have to balance her responsibility to her readers with her role as an alderman, and for some of us, that would be a difficult thing to do. And even if we did it well, there would be some skepticism, with readers wondering if we’re withholding some things that we know. (Some already question papers in that regard believing that we only report what we want to report.)

If McLane reveals everything, including what she learns in executive sessions, it would raise legal issues both concerning her being allowed to cover executive sessions while other reporters are not and her reporting information that is not supposed to be public.

There’s no evidence that McLane can’t handle both roles, but the balance between them may be difficult to achieve. As a Beebe resident and business owner, she has the right to want to get involved in governing her city, just as any other resident or business owner does.

However, having the right to do something does not automatically make it the right thing to do.

Again, this does not mean McLane won’t do a great job in both roles. There’s no way we’ll know that until she begins to try to balance them.

The only thing that it means is situations like this raise legitimate questions about whether the one reporting the news and the one providing that news should be the same person.

Some of us would rather keep those roles separated to avoid any possibility that we could be seen as biased. We get enough questions about being in politicians’ pockets without putting ourselves in a position where those questions deserve to be asked.

___

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Aug. 30, 2016

Who owns history?

Bentonville’s mayor, Bob McCaslin, may have a better chance of earning an MTV Music Award than a seat on the board of trustees of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Why? Gauge his chances after hearing his perspective in Bentonville’s recent discussions about how historic properties in his hometown might be protected: “If you want to buy it and bulldoze it, go for it. It’s America,” McCaslin said in a recent City Council meeting.

It is America, home of the brave, land of the free, with its amber waves of grain. And from sea to shining sea, there are thousands of historic properties that face destruction in the name of progress or, in some cases, due to simple deterioration because they seemingly have outlived usefulness within human endeavors.

In Bentonville, concerns about lost history have revived discussions about how historic elements of Bentonville might be preserved. These concerns arose after the discovery of plans by the Scott family to demolish some older homes to make room for new single-family homes.

These homes also happened to be on or near Central Avenue, a street peppered with houses that for decades have helped create Bentonville’s charm.

“They’re both jewels,” Randy McCrory, a local historian and memorabilia collector, said in reference to two homes on Central Avenue. “They’re things that really should stay as historical monuments to Bentonville’s past, and yet they’re going to be torn down.”

Should? That’s a word that gets thrown around a lot when people who don’t own a property have definite ideas about what its future ought to be. Back in May, some people demonstrated in front of 701 and 703 W. Central Avenue with signs saying “Save our history,” ”Stop destroying our historic homes” and “Shame on them.”

One of the properties was the home a teenage Louise McPhetridge. She later blazed a path in aviation under her married name, Louise Thaden, and was a contemporary of Amelia Earhart. Bentonville’s airport is named in her honor, and organizers of a new private school in Bentonville say the venture will be known as the Thaden School.

There’s no question she’s a major historic figure in aviation. Still, it’s intriguing how the demonstrators’ signs divided up ownership involving the McPhetridge house: It’s “our” history, and “our” homes, but shame on “them?”

Does ownership change hands with such speed? And the “them” involved refers to the people who have only invested their own money in the property. That’s all.

McCaslin didn’t appear to have any outright objection to the idea of preserving history. His straight-forward comment, however, was focused on a critically important question: Is it the proper role of government to stand in the way of private property owners use of their properties when others who don’t have a penny invested declare them “historic?”

Alderman John Skaggs offered this thought: “The message I think we’re tying to get across is that we have citizens that get upset when a building is torn down and want to blame the city for not having interfered. But those citizens need to get busy and get to work on an organization where they can deal with the issue instead of expecting the city to.”

One of the easiest things in the world is to tell others what they ought to do with their property, but think about how you’d react if someone decided they got to have a say in your own property.

That’s not to say historic properties should be tossed aside without serious consideration for what will be lost. Once a property is demolished, it’s gone forever. But these houses attracted scant attention from preservationists before the Scotts made their plans. Showing up to demonstrate one the eve of demolition is hardly a successful game plan for preserving history.

Fortunately for Bentonville, the Scotts found a solution. They will dismantle the McPhetridge house and it will eventually be moved to the campus of the private Thaden School. No doubt some of the activism pressing for preservation helped achieve that result.

But if Bentonville residents expect city government to lead the charge, in regulatory fashion, to create a barrier to private property owners doing what they wish with their properties, it sounds like they’ll be disappointed. That’s not what city government ought to be doing.

Rather, individuals who care about local history need to marshal their forces, take inventory of the properties they would like to see preserved, then set about the business of achieving that through a nonprofit organization. It’s hard work and it’s not easy fundraising, but such a proactive approach will accomplish far more than expecting city government to step in.


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