Arkansas House committee votes down bill to loosen public meetings law
Republican Rep. Mary Bentley of Perryville (right) listens as attorney and Transparency in Government Group member Joey McCutchen answers a question from a member of the Arkansas House Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs on Wednesday, March 15, 2023. (Screenshot from meeting video)
EDITORS’ NOTE: Advocate Editor Sonny Albarado testified against House Bill 1610 during the March 15, 2023, meeting of the House Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs in his capacity as a member of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Coalition.
A panel of state representatives rebuffed an attempt on Wednesday to allow members of local governing bodies to meet in private.
House Bill 1610 by Rep. Mary Bentley (R-Perryville) would add three words to the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act that transparency advocates testified would severely weaken Arkansas’ open-meetings law.
The bill would require a governing body to meet in public only when a quorum is present, meaning smaller groups of members could meet to discuss public business in private.
Bentley said her bill would allow local governing bodies to function more efficiently, permitting members to discuss business between meetings. Dissuading governing board members from communicating outside of the public forum has created “tyrant” county judges and school superintendents, she said.
“We have tied the hands of our [justices of the peace] and our school board members,” Bentley said.
Robert Steinbuch, a law professor and author of the treatise on the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act, spoke against the bill. He noted that open meetings laws try to strike a balance between transparency and hampering the efficiency of governing bodies.
Under Bentley’s bill, Steinbuch said the public would only see the votes of governing boards without understanding the foundation for those decisions.
“People should have access to the sausage making,” he said.
Currently, Arkansas’ public records law doesn’t explicitly define what constitutes a public meeting, but case law and attorneys general opinions have created a climate where most officials believe that no two members should meet in private to discuss the business of their governing body or exchange texts or emails about public business.
Both government groups and transparency advocates have long pushed for more clarity about what constitutes a meeting under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.
Sen. Alan Clark (R-Lonsdale) introduced a competing bill that would prohibit the discussion of public business between two or more members of a governing body. It also failed in committee.
Several House members and witnesses at Wednesday’s meeting of the Arkansas House Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs asked Bentley if she would work toward a compromise with Clark and transparency groups.
“I don’t see that it’s necessary,” Bentley replied. “I’m not going to pull the bill.”
The legislation was then defeated in a voice vote.
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