By CHUCK BARTELS
LITTLE ROCK — A former member of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission helped implement procedural changes that are similar to new rules he now claims are illegal, the agency said Friday.
Sheffield Nelson has sued the seven-member agency, claiming its new committee system concentrates power with three commissioners and violates the state Administrative Procedures Act. The commission is independent of the governor and lawmakers.
Commissioner Rick Watkins said agency staff researched how administrative procedures have changed in recent years and found "that Nelson is attacking the commission today for the very same thing he attempted to do while he served on the commission. It’s time he becomes accountable for his actions and tells the truth to the people of Arkansas."
Nelson called the accusation "absolutely false." Nelson, an attorney who served on the commission between 2000 to 2007, said "Mr. Watkins needs to tell the truth to the people of Arkansas."
The commission has come under a storm of criticism from Gov. Mike Beebe, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel and several legislators for trying to write its own public records rules that would have vastly limited public access to commission documents.
The effort has since been abandoned, commissioners said, but the way the changes were proposed stemmed from the agency’s reworked committee system.
The Administrative Procedures Act requires state agencies to follow common procedures. Voters passed a constitutional amendment in 1944 creating the commission to keep legislators from being involved in setting season dates and hunting and fishing regulations.
Documents released by the commission indicate that Nelson attended meetings that involved developing separate administrative procedures. Among the pages was an opinion from then-Attorney General Mark Pryor, who advised that the agency would not "likely" be bound by the Administrative Procedures Act if challenged in court. The opinion notes that the Arkansas Supreme Court had not produced case law on the issue.
According to notes taken during a July 2000 meeting, Arkansas Game and Fish attorney Jim Goodhart told the panel that the attorney general’s opinion indicated that the commission "cannot be constrained by the Legislature through procedural statutes" and said he believed the agency could adopt its own administrative procedures.
Nelson, who was listed as having attended the meeting, said discussions of rule changes would have pertained to a narrow circumstance, not a wholesale revision of the voting structure of the panel.
But Goodhart said that wasn’t the case.
"Mr. Nelson was aware of and encouraged our efforts to develop administrative procedures for the commission. He had several conversations with me personally directing me and my staff to move ahead and develop new procedures," Goodhart said Friday.
Nelson said Goodhart wasn’t being honest.
Nelson’s attorney, Don Eilbott, said the documents were sought by Nelson through a Freedom of Information Act and don’t prove any of the claims the commission made Friday. A total of about 650 pages have been released.
The agency’s new committee rules stipulate that a measure needs only four votes to pass if it was recommended by a committee of commissioners. If a proposal isn’t advanced by a committee, five commissioners would have to approve it.
Nelson’s lawsuit, filed in September, seeks an order that the commission end its committee system and comply with state law that dictates how state agencies structure their operations.
Commission Chairman Craig Campbell told lawmakers Thursday that the agency plans to "vigorously" defend itself against the suit.
Campbell, Watkins and Commissioner Emon Mahony were on the three-person committee that advanced a measure that would have limited public access to Game and Fish Commission documents. They also are the commissioners that Nelson says have the bulk of the power on the commission.
Nelson has called for all three to resign, but each plans to finish his term.