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Friday, Apr. 29, 2016

Defending the public's right to know

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Managing Editor

The Arkansas FOI Coalition has apparently forestalled a piece of draft legislation that would have infringed on the public's right to know by weakening the Freedom of Information Act.

Although the Association of Counties wanted nothing to do with the legislation, the Arkansas Municipal League offered tacit approval by permitting it to be presented at their recent annual meeting in Little Rock, where it received a rousing reception from the assembly of some 900 mayors, aldermen and city recorders.

Arkansas Press Association Executive Director Tom Larimer said, "This bill wouldn't have modified the FOI, it would have gutted it."

Larimer asked newspaper editors and publishers throughout the state to urge their legislators to oppose the bill. As we mentioned last week, we in the media were concerned because, under Arkansas' term limits, a full one-third of the legislators are new.

"Many of these new lawmakers have come from city and county elected positions where the FOI has taken them out of their respective comfort zones at one time or another in their career. It would seem they would be ripe for falling in behind this draft legislation," Larimer said.

We contacted our new representative, Curren Everett, who has been assigned to the House Committee on City, County and Local Affairs, the committee that would have considered whether to pass any related legislation to the full House. Everett affirmed his support of the Freedom of Information Act, as well as acknowledged the importance of access by the press on behalf of the public.

The proposed legislation would have:

* Required prior notice of a meeting only if a majority of a quorum of governing bodies is gathering.

* Closed files "maintained by" municipalities and counties that if disclosed would give advantage to competitors or bidders.

* Closed records maintained by a municipality or county containing information "relating to legal actions, causes of action, litigation or settlement offers involving the municipality or county and any confidential or privileged communications between a municipality or county or its representatives and its attorneys." Such records would be made public only "upon final disposition of the matter or upon the signing of a settlement agreement (unless a court prohibits disclosure)."

* Allowed a municipality or county to meet with its attorneys in executive session "for the purpose of discussing legal actions, causes of action, litigation or settlement offers involving the municipality or county."

The draft also included additional items.

Rep. John Paul Verkamp (R-Greenwood), a lawyer in his third term in the House, filed HB 1139 in what the FOIA Coalition called the "first salvo against the public's right to know." The bill would have, among other things, permitted attorneys to attend executive sessions, which is currently prohibited.

If that sounds like a reasonable modification, consider: Executive sessions are now permitted only for the purpose of discussing the hiring, firing, promotion or discipline of a public employee. In a closed meeting to discuss a dispute between say, a city and an employee, the council has an unfair advantage if the city attorney is present but the employee's attorney is not.

And frankly, we don't trust an attorney and governing body meeting in closed session to restrict their discussion to employee matters. The temptation would be too strong to question the attorney in closed session about matters that should be discussed in public. The same attorney who tells the council in public what the law requires might, in private, tell the council how to skirt the law.

Plus, the attorney is not an employee of council or the mayor or the county judge or the quorum court. He is an employee of the people, whose taxes fund his paycheck. The people are entitled to know what he has to say.

Fortunately, Verkamp's bill drew immediate and strong opposition from not only the media but fellow lawmakers, and he withdrew it. It appears at this point to be a dead issue.

But because bills can sometimes take shape rapidly and slip through committee, the FOI Coalition continues to monitor all legislation that would impede the public's access to public information or meetings. The coalition is comprised of representatives of all media, with newspapers taking the lead.

Admittedly, city councils and quorum courts sometimes develop adversarial relationships with the press, and they think the way to avoid bad press is by restricting access to information. But that is like trying to cure pneumonia by locking the patient outside in the snow.

The antidote for bad press relations is openness. That medicine might taste bitter going down, but the long-term health benefits make it worthwhile.