Gutting Arkansas’ open meetings law

March 14, 2023 5:00 am
Rep. Mary Bentley (R-Perryville) at a legislative hearing in February. (Photo by John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

Republican Rep. Mary Bentley of Perryville, sponsor of a bill that defines a public meeting as a quorum of a public body. (Photo by John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

I spoke too soon. Yesterday, I published a hopeful opinion piece about legislation that, if passed, would enhance the public’s right to know enshrined in Arkansas’ 56-year-old Freedom of Information Act.

One of those bills, Senate Bill 382, would define what a public meeting is. As I noted in Monday’s column, the FOIA doesn’t specify how many members of a public body are needed in order for a gathering to become an official — and thereby public — meeting. The Arkansas Supreme Court has wrestled with the lack of a definition for years and has, rightly, expanded the law to encompass telephone discussions and email chains as meetings in certain cases.

But now Rep. Mary Bentley (R-Perryville) has filed House Bill 1610, which says a public meeting would occur when a quorum of a public body is present. A quorum is the minimum number of members a deliberative body needs to conduct official business.

If this bill becomes law, the open meetings section of the FOIA would become almost meaningless. School board members could get together in groups anytime and anywhere they choose as long as the number in the gathering is below a quorum. They could discuss and even decide policy, make personnel decisions or agree to enter contracts with you none the wiser until they call an official meeting and take a binding vote.

I’ve seen how this works in the past. A three-member city commission votes to award an insurance contract with no discussion because the decision was made beforehand. That’s not transparency. Nor is it worthy of our trust as citizens.

HB 1610 should not only be cause for alarm, it should enrage anyone who believes that public business should be discussed and decided upon in public.

The FOIA is what gives you and I the right to observe public officials, whether city directors, justices of the peace, school board members or library board members, as they discuss, deliberate and decide issues of importance and public spending.

The FOIA currently says, “… all meetings, formal or informal, special or regular, of the governing bodies of all municipalities, counties, townships, and school districts and all boards, bureaus, commissions, or organizations of the State of Arkansas, except grand juries, supported wholly or in part by public funds or expending public funds, shall be public meetings.”

Bentley’s bill adds the words “a quorum of” between “regular” and “the governing bodies.” That’s a game-changer folks, and not for the better.

SB 382, the other bill that defines a meeting, says one would occur whenever two or more members of a governing body “discuss, deliberate or decide public business.” It would exempt chance encounters or informal gatherings, as long as the officials involved avoided talking shop.

That’s not a perfect solution to the what-is-a-meeting issue. I don’t particularly like putting a number, not even two, on what makes a meeting. But it would be a heck of a lot better than what Bentley proposes.

That she filed the bill as Sunshine Week gets underway should disturb anyone who works to secure transparency in government.

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Sonny Albarado
Sonny Albarado

In his 50-year career, Sonny Albarado has been an investigations editor, a business editor, a city editor, an environmental reporter and a government reporter at newspapers in Arkansas, Tennessee and Louisiana. He retired from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 2020 after serving as projects editor for 12 ½ years and returned to professional journalism in 2022 to lead the Arkansas Advocate. He is a former national president of the Society of Professional Journalists and a current member of the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.