An attempt to weaken Arkansas public records law fails in committee 

A bill re-defining a public meeting passes on 11-3 vote

March 29, 2023 11:45 pm
Rep. David Ray, R-Maumelle

Rep. David Ray, R-Maumelle, listens as Deputy Attorney General for Opinions Ryan Owsley discusses details of House Bill 1726 to a committee on Mar. 29, 2023. (Antoinette Grajeda/Arkansas Advocate)

Citizens prevailed over government secrecy Wednesday night in one of two skirmishes over your right to know.

After nearly three hours of testimony, much of it from citizens who identified themselves as Republicans, the House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee rejected a proposal that would have “disemboweled” the state’s public records law, as one opponent described it.

House Bill 1726 by Republican Rep. David Ray of Maumelle would have exempted many documents, including police investigative files, available under the law today. It also would have made it much more expensive to obtain public records and given officials more time to comply with records requests.

In presenting his bill, Ray declared that the debate over open government is not a binary choice. There’s a continuum between government as a “black box” and government as a “fish bowl,” he said. A balance needs to be struck, he argued.

I agree. But HB 1726 wasn’t the way to accomplish that goal, not least because the complicated legislation was filed only two days ago.

Deputy Attorney General Ryan Owsley sat at Ray’s side and explained that the proposed exemptions in the bill “are standard among other states.”

Ray added: “It’s not true that this will lead to no documents. There will be lots of documents still available.”

Law professor Robert Steinbuch of Little Rock vehemently disagreed: “There will be no documents.”

Owsley and Ray said the legislation would create protections for attorney-client privilege beyond the “working papers” exemption in today’s law that applies only to state constitutional officers and members of the Legislature.

And they explained that an increase in public records requests as well as the “weaponization” of the Freedom of Information Act to harass public officials prompted the need for a way to charge for public employees’ time in researching, retrieving and redacting requested information.

More than 20 citizens spoke passionately against the bill, citing examples of how public officials abuse the existing law. About a dozen law enforcement, fire and public officials spoke for the bill, also citing abuses but from those seeking public records.

“I get abused by government officials who don’t acknowledge receipt of a public records request, much less respond within the required three days,” Trumann resident Donnie Scroggins said.

Roger Kidd from Craighead County said the proposed legislation made him “just sick.”

“The FOIA isn’t here to make government officials’ jobs easier,” he said.

Scott Gray, who identified himself as chairman of the Saline County Republican Party, commented on the section of the bill that would allow officials to charge an hourly rate for employee time after eight hours.

“Making the FOIA more expensive keeps the public in the dark,” he said. The provision also is an invitation to a corrupt official to overcharge for documents taxpayers have already paid for.

Ellen Kreth, owner and publisher of the Madison County Record, said the bill will turn the FOIA into a “rich man’s law” because many citizens wouldn’t be able to afford the additional costs.

Kreth also cited a case in which a school district failed to report student-on-student sexual abuse that wouldn’t have come to light but for the FOIA.

“This bill will harm children,” she said, referring to a number of bills this legislative session that lawmakers pushed as protecting children.

If there are problems with the law that need to be addressed, she suggested, changes should be made on specific issues.

A couple of opponents of the legislation, including me, suggested that lawmakers send the issues debated Wednesday to a study committee where citizens, officials and others could hash out their concerns and arrive at some compromise. (I spoke against the bill on behalf of the Arkansas FOIA Coalition, a private group of transparency advocates.)

After all the testimony, Rep. Richard Womack, R-Arkadelphia, noted, “Literally everybody who testified for this bill stands to benefit” from it and said he would vote against it.

Ray’s bill failed on a 10-5 roll call vote.

Less than an hour later, the same committee voted 11-3 to send to the full House a bill that defines a public meeting as a gathering of more than one-third of the members of any local governing bodies.

House Bill 1610 by Rep. Mary Bentley, R-Perryville, originally defined a meeting as a quorum of a governing body. She amended it to a third after it was roundly criticized in an earlier committee meeting. Despite the change, a number of witnesses continued to oppose it on Wednesday.

Bentley prevailed this time. Her bill goes back to the full House for consideration.

Nevertheless, I think Wednesday was overall a good day for sunshine in Arkansas 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.