Control Of Buddhist Temple Could Be Decided By Election

By John Lyon, Times Record, Aug 28, 2006

Fort Smith, Arkansas (USA) -- The Sebastian County Election Commission is expected to decide today whether to conduct an election for a Fort Smith Buddhist temple whose members have been battling each other in court for more than a year.

Election Coordinator Jerry Huff said the commission will consider a request to conduct an election of temple officers at Wat Buddha Samakitham, 4625 Armour St. The court-ordered election is scheduled for Sept. 10.

If the Election Commission does conduct the election, the temple will pay all costs, Huff said.

The question of who should control the temple has been the subject of a legal battle since June 2005, when a group of temple members filed a civil suit in Sebastian County Circuit Court against the temple’s abbot, Phra Sangob Parisanto, and several other temple members.

The plaintiffs alleged that the defendants were trying to take control of the temple from the duly-elected board of directors, in violation of bylaws that had been in effect since 1989. Parisanto and 11 other people filed a cross complaint that accused the plaintiffs of violating temple bylaws that were passed in 1992, superseding the 1989 bylaws.

In August 2005, Circuit Judge James Marschewski placed First National Bank in temporary charge of the temple’s bank accounts. In May, Marschewski ruled that the 1989 bylaws were the only valid bylaws and ordered that an election be held to choose a new board of directors, which would then take control of the temple’s accounts.

Tensions did not ease after the judge’s ruling. On June 2, Fort Smith police were called to the temple after a heated argument arose over whether visiting monks who did not belong to the Dhammayut denomination of Buddhism — the denomination of the resident monks — should be given quarters at the temple.

Marschewski held another hearing June 23. After it became evident from testimony that the two sides disagreed on virtually every aspect of the election, including the date, the judge said the court would set the rules for the election.

On July 10, Marschewski appointed a special master in the case. Fort Smith lawyer Brad Jesson, a former Arkansas Supreme Court justice who served as a special master in the Lake View school-funding case, received the appointment.

Jesson set a date for the election, issued a list of rules for it and asked the Election Commission to conduct it. Last week, he presided over a two-day hearing during which both sides presented arguments about whether specific people should or should not be eligible to vote.

“Where we are now is that we now have a master list of people who are eligible to vote in the elections, and the elections are scheduled for Sept. 10,” said Fort Smith lawyer Brian Meadors, who represents the plaintiffs in the civil suit.

Meadors and Fort Smith lawyer Robert Frazier, attorney for the defendants, both have high hopes for the election.

“I don’t see any problems with the election. I think it can run smoothly,” Frazier said.

“We’ve got a lot of oversight, counsel is working well together, and Brad Jesson is being very helpful in keeping things running smoothly,” Meadors said. “I’m very optimistic and pleased about the whole thing. We’re going to have a clean and fair election.”

Whether the election will bring the people of the temple together or divide them further remains to be seen. Victoria Sayarath, who was among those found eligible to vote during last week’s hearing, said she fears some people may stop going to the temple if the election does not turn out the way they want.

“I think they can work through it, but I’m not sure if some people are going to want to work through it,” she said.

Sayarath said she is saddened by the dispute, which she believes conflicts with the Buddhist ideal of living in harmony with one’s surroundings.

“I know a lot of people are torn up about it, and it’s really depressing to see it,” she said.