Lit­tle Rock ab­solved of vi­o­lat­ing rights

City told to ease critic’s new ban from of­fi­cial build­ings

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - LINDA SATTER

The city man­ager tes­ti­fied that he feared for his life, as well as those of his fam­ily and col­leagues, af­ter [Luke] Skrable emailed him the night of the 2015 meet­ing, say­ing in part, “Your days are num­bered.”

Lit­tle Rock Mayor Mark Stodola didn’t vi­o­late Luke Skrable’s First Amend­ment rights in deny­ing his re­quest to ad­dress the city Board of Direc­tors for three min­utes in early 2015, but the city prob­a­bly went too far in re­cently ex­tend­ing a ban to keep Skrable out of city build­ings, a fed­eral judge said Mon­day.

U.S. Mag­is­trate Judge Beth Deere is­sued her pre­lim­i­nary rul­ing from the bench af­ter a three-hour trial re­gard­ing Skrable’s law­suit against Stodola, City Man­ager Bruce Moore and the city. How­ever, she said the ques­tion of whether the lat­est ban is con­sti­tu­tional in­volves a lot of case law, much of it un­clear, and that she would is­sue a more de­tailed writ­ten or­der in sev­eral days.

Mean­while, Deere urged at­tor­neys for both sides to work to­gether to find a so­lu­tion that is “a lit­tle less broad” than the cur­rent ban for al­low­ing Skrable to at­tend meet­ings about his neigh­bor­hood while en­sur­ing the safety of oth­ers, in­clud­ing Moore.

The city man­ager tes­ti­fied that he feared for his life, as well as those of his fam­ily and col­leagues, af­ter Skrable emailed him the night of the 2015 meet­ing, say­ing in part, “Your days are num­bered.”

Skrable was later con­victed of two counts of ter­ror­is­tic threat­en­ing, for that email and for a voice mail he had left with the Pub­lic Works of­fice in Septem­ber 2014. But he re­it­er­ated Mon­day he only meant Moore’s days as city man­ager were num­bered and that he would never phys­i­cally harm Moore.

The ban that fol­lowed was in place for two years, by agree­ment of a cir­cuit judge who ap­proved it as part of a pro­ba­tion­ary sen­tence. But in March, Moore de­nied Skrable’s re­quest to lift it, say­ing Skrable can ask again in one year.

“I don’t think the city can ban him for­ever,” Deere said. “I do think ban­ning him from all city build­ings with only yearly ap­peals is too lim­it­ing.”

She told Skrable that even if he knew he wasn’t go­ing to harm Moore, his words are “rea­son­ably per­ceived as a threat,” and she thought Moore’s con­cern was valid.

Stodola said later he was “con­fi­dent we did not deny him his First Amend­ment rights” and he con­sid­ered the city vic­to­ri­ous on both of Skrable’s con­tentions — that his rights were vi­o­lated by be­ing pro­hib­ited from speak­ing at the meet­ing, and by the con­tin­ued ban.

Moore said after­ward he in­tends to talk with City At­tor­ney Tom Car­pen­ter to try to de­velop some pa­ram­e­ters for the ban, but he was grat­i­fied the judge found Skrable’s email was “clearly a threat and that my ac­tions were rea­son­able.”

Stodola said some specifics that need to be dis­cussed, in re­sponse to Deere’s urg­ing, are more fre­quent re­views of the ban and loos­en­ing the re­stric­tion on some build­ings or ar­eas af­fected by it.

Deere also ex­plained to Skrable the words “al­leged” and “al­legedly” don’t im­ply that some­one is ly­ing, ad­dress­ing Skrable’s main rea­son — of­fered pub­licly for the first time Mon­day — for want­ing to ad­dress the board at the Jan. 20, 2015, meet­ing.

Skrable tes­ti­fied he had at­tended the pre­vi­ous board meet­ing on Jan. 6, 2015, be­cause he wanted to know why he hadn’t re­ceived any re­sponse to his roughly four-dozen Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act re­quests for in­for­ma­tion on if and why the city had trans­ferred the re­spon­si­bil­ity of main­tain­ing ditches in south­west Lit­tle Rock from the Pub­lic Works de­part­ment to pri­vate prop­erty own­ers.

He said he wanted to know be­cause a zon­ing su­per­vi­sor had in­di­cated the re­spon­si­bil­ity for main­te­nance of some ditches be­tween Base­line Road and In­ter­state 30, near Skrable’s home, had been trans­ferred to four busi­nesses that ad­join them. Skrable said the ditches weren’t be­ing main­tained as well as they were be­fore, which neg­a­tively af­fected his prop­erty value. He was seek­ing de­tails on the type of main­te­nance the busi­nesses were re­quired to do, such as whether they were re­quired to re­move weeds, trash, shrubs and trees of a cer­tain height.

At the Jan. 6 meet­ing, in re­sponse to Skrable’s com­plaints to board mem­bers he had not re­ceived an­swers, Stodola asked Moore to pre­pare a mem­o­ran­dum to ex­plain if there had been a change in ditch main­te­nance pol­icy. In the process, Stodola told board mem­bers Skrable had “made an al­le­ga­tion that the ditch main­te­nance had changed.”

It was that ut­ter­ance, Skrable said Mon­day, that was the main fo­cus of his re­turn visit two weeks later. He tes­ti­fied he was of­fended by the word “al­le­ga­tion,” which he took to im­ply that he was in­cor­rect.

At the Jan. 20 meet­ing, Skrable filled out a yel­low Cit­i­zen Com­mu­ni­ca­tion card in­di­cat­ing his rea­sons for want­ing to ad­dress the board in the three min­utes al­lot­ted. His first card said he wanted to dis­cuss “gross abuse of the FOI Act.”

Stodola tes­ti­fied he wanted more specifics, to see if the re­marks vi­o­lated the board’s “one-time pol­icy” that pre­vents res­i­dents from dis­cussing the same is­sue twice, so he asked a city clerk to ob­tain a sec­ond card with more in­for­ma­tion. On the sec­ond card, Skrable said he wanted to “ad­dress in­cor­rect mayor com­ments from 1-16 meet­ing.”

Skrable tes­ti­fied Mon­day he ac­tu­ally wanted to dis­cuss both the con­tin­ued lack of ad­e­quate re­sponse to his Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act re­quests, as well as a need for Stodola to apol­o­gize.

Stodola said he didn’t want to dis­cuss the Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act is­sue un­til Moore had enough time to re­spond to his ear­lier di­rec­tive.

He said he ap­proached Skrable in a City Hall cor­ri­dor dur­ing a break and, “I said, ‘Hey Luke, what’s this about?’ He said, ‘About the ditches,’ and I said, ‘We’ve al­ready ad­dressed that.’”

If he had known Skrable wanted to speak on a new sub­ject, even if it led to crit­i­cism aimed at him, “of course I would have let him speak,” Stodola said, cit­ing “dozens and dozens” of pre­vi­ous times he let Skrable ad­dress the board.

Skrable tes­ti­fied he told Stodola dur­ing the break he wanted to dis­cuss an apol­ogy from Stodola. He con­tended, through at­tor­ney Ed Ad­cock of Lit­tle Rock, that Stodola’s re­fusal to let him speak was be­cause Stodola didn’t want the board to hear that crit­i­cism, which meant Stodola de­nied him on the con­tent of his speech, which is un­con­sti­tu­tional.

But Deere said, “I don’t think Mr. Stodola in­tended to pre­vent Mr. Skrable from speak­ing with the in­ten­tion of avoid­ing hear­ing crit­i­cism.” She added that crit­i­cism “is just the na­ture of pub­lic ser­vice,” and that Stodola is used to it. She also noted Stodola had al­lowed Skrable to ad­dress the board dozens of pre­vi­ous times, and ac­cord­ing to Skrable, de­nied him only five pre­vi­ous times.

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