By John Lyon
Arkansas News Bureau
LITTLE ROCK — While Sheffield Nelson was serving on the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission he was involved in, and approved of, discussions about actions that he now claims in a lawsuit are illegal, the commission said today.
Nelson said the commission was spreading lies in an effort to undermine his credibility.
Today, the commission released documents it says show that while on the commission Nelson “was aware of and encouraged our efforts to develop administrative procedures for the commission” separate from the state Arkansas Administrative Procedures Act.
Nelson, a former Republican candidate for governor, has filed a lawsuit alleging that the commission’s three-person governance committee is illegally controlling the decisions of the nine-member commission. Nelson claims the commission changed its decision-making structure in violation of the Administrative Procedures Act, and he is seeking a ruling that the act applies to the commission.
Commission members have said that because the commission was created by Amendment 35 of the Arkansas Constitution, not the Legislature, it can create its own procedures independent of the AAPA.
Nelson served on the commission from 2000-07 and was chairman in the final year of his term.
The commission’s documents include a July 6, 2000, opinion by then-Attorney General Mark Pryor stating that, based on the language of Amendment 35, the Arkansas Supreme Court “would likely conclude that the rulemaking requirements in (the AAPA) cannot be constitutionally applied to the commission.”
The documents also include minutes from a July 19, 2001, meeting in which “Mr. Nelson commended Jim (Goodhart, general counsel for the commission) and his staff for the appropriate actions taken in legal matters involving AG&FC and for helping to establish the commission parameters with regards to Amendment 35.”
According to minutes from an Oct. 25, 2001, meeting, Nelson “congratulated Jim and his staff for helping to shore up what Amendment 35 means and setting down parameters for what the commission can legally do.”
Little Rock lawyer Steve Quattlebaum, who is representing the commission in the lawsuit, said Friday’s release was not part of the lawsuit but was intended to set the record straight for the public.
“Mr. Nelson has indicated … that he doesn’t recall ever considering the application of the Administrative Procedures Act to the Game and Fish Commission, and apparently that was not an accurate statement,” Quattlebaum said.
Nelson said today the 2000 attorney general’s opinion was issued shortly before he joined the commission, and his comments in the July 2001 and October 2001 meetings had nothing to do with it.
“They’re trying to tie two things totally unrelated and separated by over a year,” he said.
Nelson said he did not remember what he was talking about when he thanked Goodhart in 2001, but he may have been thanking him for educating the members about state law.
He said he only remembered the Administrative Procedures Act coming up once while he served on the commission, when another commissioner asked Goodhart if the commission was complying with the act and Goodhart said it was.
“They’re doing their best to question my credibility to the public when in fact they are the ones that have been lying about everything,” he said.
Last month the commission tabled a controversial proposed policy that members said would have superseded the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act. Nelson has amended his lawsuit to ask for a ruling that the FOI applies to the commission.