A bad thing happened in House committee Wednesday. It approved House Bill 1280, after previous failures, to allow cities and county boards to meet in private to discuss pitches for economic development deals (payout of corporate welfare in other words.)

A gift of public money shouldn’t be a deal struck in secret. Subsequent presentation of a baked cake is not public disclosure. Corporate welfare is a chump’s game anyway. It rarely determines an already-decided location (except maybe by a marginal operator) and many governments have sworn off participating in the bidding wars.

Advertisement

This bill is particularly bad because, for the first time, it puts the giant nose of a camel (otherwise known as a lawyer) in the tent of secret decision-making by a public body for the first time. When this passes, school boards will be back with the same camels.

An observer of the meeting said Democrats*, including legislators from Little Rock, voted for the bill, which got the minimum 11 needed to clear the committee.

Advertisement

A vote to give more secrecy comes at a particularly unfortunate time in Little Rock. There’s already entirely too much secrecy in the operation of Little Rock City Hall. Why legalize more?

By their non-responses to FOI requests, you’d have to think the Little Rock mayor, his top aides and PR people have never exchanged a text, document or email about economic development. Topgolf? Who’s that? Particulars on the mayor’s tax increase? Same thing. No single document was produced for FOI requests until the mayor announced it, with supporting media, at a City Board meeting. Twas a miracle of spontaneous document creation.

Advertisement

I don’t believe several city hall responses I’ve received that said there was nothing in the hands of the city responsive to my FOI requests. I think city officials may believe that cell phone texts are exempt (they are not). I think they believe if they erase texts they are exempt, because there’s no longer a record and the FOI doesn’t require an official to “create” record. Wrong. Records DO exist of erased texts — at the phone companies. It is their obligation to obtain them and provide them. I also believe officials think that they can use outside servers to conduct business (they can, just not as a legal means of avoiding disclosure.) And while I’m complaining, add the round-robin meetings City Manager Bruce Moore has with city directors to be a conduit between the mayor and city directors on proposals.

So back to HB 1280. Why give legal cover to someone already disinclined to be transparent?

The Arkansas Press Association has sounded the alarm on the bill, which is headed to the House floor Monday. It sent this message:

The Arkansas House of Representatives is expected to vote Monday on House Bill 1280, legislation that if passed will have a negative and dramatic impact on how cities and counties conduct public meetings.

If HB 1280 passes, city councils, quorum courts and other governing bodies could enter into closed, executive sessions to make decisions about how to spend tax money on certain economic development projects. These types of secret discussions are unprecedented in the 54-year history of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.

Proponents say it would make the job easier for mayors, city administrators and others, and they’re willing to exchange a lot of transparency for a little convenience. They contend Arkansas needs to allow for public meetings to be held behind closed doors to keep up with efforts in surrounding states, yet they cannot provide a single example of where Arkansas has lost an economic development opportunity because of a prohibition on executive sessions for economic development.

HB 1280 also allows attorneys to attend these secret meetings. Never before have attorneys been permitted in executive sessions under FOIA, and with good reason.
Please contact the state representatives in your area before Monday’s vote and ask them to vote “No” on this attack on government transparency.

To read the bill, go to: https://www.arkleg.state.ar.us/Bills/FTPDocument?path=%2FBills%2F2021R%2FPublic%2FHB1280.pdf

I hesitate to say this. Under the Rapert/Ballinger rule, their votes often are determined by the politics of the person making an argument. They don’t like you, they won’t like your position on a bill. The news media, such as they exist anymore, aren’t particularly popular in general. Some are held in particularly low regard, if you get my drift.

Advertisement

CORRECTION: An earlier version of the story misidentified lawmakers who voted for the bill. Nicole Clowney did not vote for the bill. Megan Godfrey did, as did Little Rock Reps. Andrew Collins and Tippi McCullough.