Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Small-town government run amok (Part IV): Gould, Arkansas

A few days ago I wrote about a feud between the mayor and town council in Quartzsite, Arizona. Today's featured mayor-city council feud is in Gould, Arkansas, population 1,552. There, the city council has passed an ordinance making it illegal to form any type of group without the council's permission. The council was apparently motivated to pass this law because it believes the city's mayor is using public resources to "hold community meetings without advertising them to the entire town." The ordinance is one of a cluster of three recently passed that seems to target the Gould Citizens Advisory Council, which describes itself as "a nonpartisan group that educates voters and raises money for public causes."

As Robbie Brown reports in today's New York Times, "legal scholars agree" this is "a clear violation of the Constitution." Brown quotes Mark Hayes, general counsel for the Arkansas Municipal League: “I’ve seen some humdingers, but never any ordinance like this. This is certainly one for the books.”

A Little Rock broadcast journalist, Donna Terrell, was so surprised by news of the ordinances that she blurted out on television, "You've got to be kidding me." She subsequently attributed events in Gould to the lack of anonymity in small towns:
Political feuds become especially heated in places “where everybody knows everyone." ... "You start to see a lot of emotion where sometimes in a larger city people tend to mask their emotions.”
Brown notes that the discord has arisen, in large part, because of differing opinions over what to do about the city's fiscal crisis: $300,000 in unpaid taxes. I wonder if, as in Quartzsite, Arizona, the core dispute in Gould is about the size and role of (local) government. Another common theme of events in Arkansas and Arizona is that both governing bodies have responded to public criticism by trying to squelch it (e.g., not permitting public comments at meetings; banning organizations that criticize the government). Funny, I would have expected small-town, libertarian leaning governments to be more likely to endorse the good ol' marketplace of ideas.

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