Lawmaker to take another swing at your right to know

Weakening Arkansas’ open records and meetings law could push decision-making further into the dark

March 24, 2023 1:00 am
A transparently beautiful day above the Arkansas State Capitol dome. (Photo by John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

A transparently beautiful day above the Arkansas State Capitol dome. (Photo by John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

Rep. Mary Bentley is pushing for county governments, city councils and school boards to be more like the Legislature.

The Perryville Republican points to the ease with which she can get together with or call other lawmakers to talk about possible legislation or pending bills. The ability to confer with other lawmakers out of the public eye allows them to speak more freely and makes them more efficient, she says.

She wants justices of the peace or school board members to similarly be able to confer with each other and in groups with constituents about public business without the hassle of actually calling a meeting and notifying citizens or the press or recording the conversations. 

That’s the purpose of her House Bill 1610, which defines a meeting as a quorum of a governing body. The effect would be to allow local officials to get together anytime to discuss public business without public notice as long as the number is less than a quorum.

The difference between the Legislature and other officials, of course, is that the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act of 1967 doesn’t apply to legislators.

Bentley’s legislation failed in committee on March 15 after half a dozen witnesses spoke against it and some committee members suggested she take her bill to the FOIA Task Force for discussion and possible amendment. The Task Force is a nine-member panel of transparency experts created by the Legislature to review bills affecting the Freedom of Information Act.

Full disclosure: I am a member of a separate private group, the FOIA Coalition, which some Task Force members also belong to. I testified against HB 1610 last week.

Bentley met informally Wednesday with four Task Force members, the head of the Arkansas Press Association and transparency advocates Jimmie Cavin and Joey McCutchen to discuss a possible compromise, but I’m told the meeting didn’t go well. 

Rep. Mary Bentley (R-Perryville) at a legislative hearing in February. (Photo by John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)
Rep. Mary Bentley (R-Perryville) at a legislative hearing in January. (Photo by John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

Later Wednesday, Bentley told Cavin in a recorded podcast conversation that she doesn’t have time to formally take HB 1610 to the Task Force. She noted that time grows short in this legislative session, which is supposed to end April 7, although some observers expect an extension. Besides, Bentley repeated what she told the legislative committee last week: she isn’t bound by actions of a previous legislature.

Bentley told Cavin she will try to run her bill again when the Legislature returns from Spring Break on Monday. She said she likely will amend it so that instead of a quorum, it would use one-third of a governing body’s membership as the cutoff between informal gatherings and a meeting requiring advance notice and recording.

Cavin tried his best to point out the benefits of the current FOIA language, which covers “all meetings, formal or informal, special or regular of the governing bodies” of cities, counties, townships, school boards and all state “boards, bureaus, commissions or organizations” supported by public funds or that spend taxpayer money.

He also pointed out, as others did last week, that nothing in the law prevents two or three quorum court members from seeing each other at a ball game or in church and talking to one another. They just can’t talk about possible ordinances or public contracts, or make any decisions about public business without notifying the public.

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Bentley countered that justices of the peace in her district are terrified of getting sued if they say anything more than hello to each other outside of a public meeting. They’re also afraid to meet with constituents about a problem because of the interpretations of the FOIA they’re getting from legal advisers, she said.

Her bill would “allow them to get better information and be better educated and to make better choices,” she told Cavin. “It will increase rather than decrease public participation.”

Let’s just say they agreed to disagree.

She said she’s talked to a number of quorum court members in her district, who favor her definition of a meeting. Cavin countered with statements he obtained from Faulkner County justices of the peace who said they oppose the bill.

Bentley told Cavin she intends to file an amendment to her bill on Monday and hopes to run the amended bill through a House committee that afternoon.

She doesn’t want to delay pushing her legislation through this session. She’s not interested in further study involving more stakeholders, even though that might lead to legislation less destructive of the FOIA.

What’s the rush? 


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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.