A team of Democrats, Republicans, independents, attorneys and journalists is forming to protect Arkansas’s Freedom of Information Act, and they’re inviting you to join the effort.
The new group Arkansas Citizens for Transparency (ACT) released a draft amendment to the state constitution Wednesday that would safeguard the now embattled government transparency law from further attacks. It would also set hard and fast rules on what constitutes a public meeting and stricter penalties for anyone who wrongly shuts out the public from events or information that should be open and available.
The motley force is united by a core belief “that having an open and transparent government is a right, and rights belong in the constitution,” its Oct. 11 open letter states. “For that reason, this group has come together — in spite of our varied, and in some cases fundamentally opposed, political perspectives — to propose the Arkansas Government Transparency Amendment.” You can read their letter here.
Signers include Republican attorney and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) expert Rob Steinbuch; Arkansas Press Association Director Ashley Wimberley; attorneys David Couch, John Tull and Jennifer Standerfer; and former Republican legislator turned independent firebrand Nate Bell.
ACT organizers are sharing their draft amendment with the public to collect ideas and feedback before submitting a final version to the attorney general’s office to begin the process of getting it on the ballot. They’ll have to collect 90,704 signatures to put the amendment before the voters.
Per Bell’s release:
In preparing this Amendment, our goals have been to:
1) Enshrine the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act, as it existed on September 1, 2023 (before the September 2023 special session), into the state constitution;
2) Ensure that any further changes to the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act that reduce government transparency may only be approved by a vote of the people of Arkansas, while providing that laws that increase government transparency may be passed by the General Assembly;
3) Change as little as possible in the existing Arkansas Freedom of Information Act, with the primary exception being to provide a definition for “public meeting,” which has been a hole in the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act for some time;
4) Safeguard the ability of any citizen of Arkansas to enforce the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act by protecting their ability to recover attorney’s fees in the event that a Freedom of Information Act request is wrongfully denied;
5) Create a penalty for bad actors who knowingly violate the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act;
6) Account appropriately for the security of public officials and their minor children, balanced with the public’s right to know how our tax dollars are spent; and
7) Keep the amendment language as simple as possible, while taking into account the vast number of laws existing in the Arkansas Code affecting government transparency.
The group began organizing on the heels of the September legislative special session where Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her supporters tried to kneecap the hallowed and longstanding government transparency law. Having to answer questions and fulfill document requests from journalists and curious citizens sucks up lots of time and energy and makes state government less efficient, they claimed.
Too bad, was the response from Arkansans from across the political spectrum, who argued that civic engagement and transparency are core components of this whole democracy thing.
That alliance of unusual bedfellows was largely successful in tanking Sanders’ play to build a wall of secrecy around state government. Still, her supporters in the legislature pushed a watered-down version over the finish line that allows the Arkansas State Police to shield the governor’s travel and security related expenses and information from the public. Hiding information about who joined the governor on taxpayer-funded trips and where they went, even months or years after the fact, is a safety precaution, they said.
State Sen. Clarke Tucker (D-Little Rock) is among those working to restore Arkansas’s Freedom of Information Act to where it was before the most recent change. Tucker helped stave off wholesale changes to the law in September, telling his Republican colleagues he would only support a bill narrowly focused to shield just the governor’s security information. When Republican lawmakers came back with a whittled down proposal, Tucker said he felt beholden to vote for it.
Now, Tucker and fellow ACT members want to repeal that blanket security exemption and instead require the release of such records once they’re three months old.
“Government transparency is a right of the people of Arkansas,” Tucker said Wednesday. “Rights belong in the constitution. It has been a challenge to figure out the best way to approach this issue, which is so important. We are excited about the work we have done and look forward to hearing from stakeholders to strengthen the language even more before we submit it to the Attorney General’s office. Ultimately, we join people across Arkansas in looking forward to enshrining government transparency in its rightful place.”
Once the group settles on a final draft, they’ll have to win approval of their ballot title from Attorney General Tim Griffin. This part is always sticky, as the approval process is somewhat subjective and politics have a way of creeping in. Griffin supported Sanders’ recent attempts to gut FOIA, and has been vocal about his wish to revamp Arkansas’s transparency laws that he’s said are now outdated.