Thank goodness the legislators from western Arkansas and across the state let us know they support Arkansas’ vanguard Freedom of Information Act. Routinely they begin conversations saying, “I support the Freedom of Information Act.” If a “but” follows that opening clause, well, at least we know where they stand about the people’s right to know what their government is doing.
And that’s good thing. Without those protests, we’d have doubts about their commitment to FOIA.
Last month those in the General Assembly who support the Freedom of Information Act demonstrated their support by exempting from it the names of those who have licenses to carry concealed weapons. They had hoped for another chance to demonstrate it by exempting also the names of those with open-carry licenses, but the whole open-carry thing has stumbled twice now in committee. Closing the record of those with open-carry licenses would have offered a particularly clear statement about FOIA, considering that the hip holsters of those carrying openly would seem to have disclosed the information anyway.
On Tuesday, the Arkansas Senate unanimously showed its support for the Freedom of Information Act by exempting from it the names of minors in traffic accidents. This was done, according to The Associated Press, despite a compromise offered by the Arkansas Press Association that would have prohibited the use of information about minors for commercial solicitation but would have kept the records open to the public.
Also on Tuesday, the Senate joined its unanimous support to the state House’s overwhelming support (81-7) of the Freedom of Information in SB 1216 by designating Internet publication the primary means of making public state agency reports.
Actually, that’s just one of many bills aimed at moving public notification from newspapers, long regarded as offering the widest and most accessible platform for getting information to the public.
House Bill 1488, HB 1494 and HB 1495, sponsored by Rep. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, would remove publication of public notices from newspapers to a website maintained by the state. House Joint Resolution 1007, also sponsored by Rep. Hammer would amend the state constitution to allow the Legislature to determine the manner of public notice for initiatives, election results and bond sales.
These bills are offered despite the fact that as many as a million people in Arkansas do not have access to the Internet. As APA Executive Director Tom Larimer argued in a guest column earlier this month: “The proposal would remove the elderly, the poor and minority groups, of which we have plenty, especially from access to this vital public information. They just don’t have computers, are not tech savvy, and have no Internet connectivity even if they could afford it.”
The bills are touted as money-saving proposals. Whether or not they would save money — and that is by no means clear — they come at a dear cost to those who are not connected to the Internet.
HB 1327 would close to the public meetings and records of meetings about security procedures for schools and colleges.
Of course, the notion is that there is no sense advertising the things we do to keep our children safe, but the bill does much more than that. By offering boards more opportunities to meet in private, it creates more opportunities for them to veer off-topic and discuss other business. Already, elected officials tell us they can’t avoid accidental discussions of public business even in happenstance meetings. How much harder it will be for them to avoid discussing board business in what is already a protected board meeting.
As for parents who really want to know if schools are protecting their children to the greatest extent possible and for parents who want to want to understand what happened in the, heaven forbid, tragic event something goes wrong? Sorry. None of your business. If this bill passes, it will be because our public-information-supporting legislators didn’t think you had the right to know.
It happens that we are in the middle of the national observation of Sunshine Week, an occasion each March to note successes and failures in the ultimate fight of democracy: making sure the public’s business is done in public.
In Arkansas we are often in the fortunate position of bragging about our Freedom of Information Act, which has been seen widely as one of the best and strongest in the nation. This year, the General Assembly seems to be playing an especially dangerous game of whack-a-mole in which the people of Arkansas are the moles, and the legislators, despite their protestations of support for “the people’s law,” are doing the whacking.
Logic and consistency seem absent from discussions in Little Rock. How can it be that a Legislature that said it was dedicated to shrinking government is considering creating a new centralized agency within the secretary of state’s office to manage public notifications? How can it be that supporters of the private market want the state to compete for public notifications for years handled by private businesses?
How can it be that legislators who said they wanted government put back in the hands of the people are shielding so much of that government from public view?
How can it be that people who campaigned on platforms of transparency and accountability are looking to make opaque so many records?
Sunshine Week 2013 will be a fading memory by the time the General Assembly recesses from regular business on April 19.
We hope the same cannot be said for the once-vaunted Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.