Arkansas Freedom of Information Act gets new focus from state’s attorney general

By: - June 14, 2023 5:59 pm
Rep. David Ray, R-Maumelle

Rep. David Ray, R-Maumelle, and Deputy Attorney General for Opinions Ryan Owsley have been appointed to a new FOIA Review Working Group by Attorney General Tim Griffin to advise him on ways to "modernize" the state's public records and open meetings law. They're seen here at a legislative committee hearing on March 29, 2023. (Antoinette Grajeda/Arkansas Advocate)

Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin has named seven people to advise his office on ways to modernize the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

“The last time FOIA was modernized, the iPhone hadn’t been invented yet,” Griffin said in a press release announcing the formation of an FOIA Review Working Group.

“Since then, the use of digital records and new communications technology has increased exponentially, making it possible for public entities to create and retain more records than ever before, making responding to FOIA requests more complex and increasing the amount of FOIA requests being lodged with public entities.

“That is why this working group is so badly needed,” Griffin said. “It is a bicameral, bipartisan group that also includes members of the legal and press communities that will review the FOIA and provide my office with recommendations on how to improve the law.”

The Arkansas Freedom of Information Act governs what government documents are open to public inspection and what government meetings must be held in public. Adopted in 1967, efforts to limit or expand its reach crop up in most legislative sessions.

Asked if the meetings of the attorney general’s working group would be public, office spokesperson Jeff LeMaster responded Wednesday:

“This is an informal, conversational working group. As such, the meetings of the group will not be open to the public. Any legislation that the AG decides to include in his 2025 legislative package based on recommendations from the group will, of course, be public when the legislation is filed.”

The group has met once already and will meet roughly once a month starting in September, LeMaster said.

This spring, two bills that opponents characterized as gutting the open records/open meetings law failed to get out of committee. HB1610, by Rep. Mary Bentley, R-Perryville, would have redefined public meetings. Bentley said the law ties the hands of public officials who want to be able to talk to each other without having to notify the public and the media.

HB1726 by Rep. David Ray, R-Maumelle, would have exempted documents such as police investigative files that the law makes available today. It also would have made it more costly for citizens to obtain public records and given officials more time to comply with records requests.

Ray defended his proposed legislation in a March committee hearing as an attempt to strike a balance between government as a “black box” and government “in a fishbowl.” He argued that a rapid increase in public records requests had inundated public officials and that some requesters had “weaponized” the FOIA to harass officials.

Ray is one of the people Griffin named to his FOIA Review Working Group. The others are:

  • Republican state Sen. Breanne Davis of Russellville
  • Deputy Attorney General Ryan Owsley, Opinions Division
  • Deputy Attorney General John Payne, Civil Litigation Division
  • Democratic state Sen. Clarke Tucker of Little Rock
  • John Tull III, partner at Quattlebaum, Grooms & Tull, PLLC
  • Ashley Kemp Wimberley, executive director, Arkansas Press Association

Griffin’s press release quoted Ray saying he looks forward to serving on the working group.

“It is important that our laws provide citizens with ample transparency wherever possible and give taxpayers the efficient, customer-focused government they deserve,” he said.

Tucker noted that “Arkansas has one of the strongest FOIA laws in the country, and that’s the way it should stay.”

The law has been amended many times since 1967 in a piecemeal fashion, the Little Rock attorney said.

“It’s essential for a coalition of people with varying backgrounds but shared expertise and commitment to review those changes, as well as the changes in our society, to ensure that we have a strong FOIA fit for a modern world.”

Tull said guarding the FOIA has been a big part of his legal career and said he was honored to serve “to find ways to improve FOIA but maintain its strength.”

Wimberley said it’s “important to be proactive in having these discussions in advance of legislative sessions. I look forward to hearing the thoughts and ideas of others in this working group and seeing where there are opportunities to find middle ground while maintaining the strength of the state’s FOIA.”


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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.