Like many other people, journalists breathe a sigh of relief when the Arkansas General Assembly adjourns. Lawmakers may take offense at such statements, and yet they often complain, when a major legislative error comes to light, that they never have time enough to read the bills they’re voting on.
In some cases that’s exactly what the sponsors intend.
For example, on the day of the deadline for filing proposed legislation during a general session, hundreds of bills are thrown into the mix, many of them known as "shell bills." They have no content but leave open the prospect for amendment.
One such bill this year was House Bill 2100, sponsored by Rep. John K. Hutchison, R-Harrisburg, titled "An Act to Amend the Freedom of Information Act of 1967; and for Other Purposes." Its entire content: "SECTION 1. The purpose of this act is to amend the Freedom of 19 Information Act of 1967, Arkansas Code § 25-19-101 et seq."
Fortunately, that "shell" never got anywhere, dying in the House State Agencies Committee on a 9-1 vote.
We’re not always so fortunate. Sometimes bad bills sneak through the process with hardly any notice.
The Arkansas Freedom of Information Act is important to journalists and other citizens. It guarantees access to public records and meetings of public bodies. Journalists understand that we’ve got to defend the law, or it will be amended to death by public officials who don’t like to operate in the sunshine.
The Arkansas Press Association, through Executive Director Tom Larimer and Communications Director Tres Williams, does the heavy lifting when it comes to monitoring efforts to weaken the FOIA. During a session they spend countless hours talking with legislators, attending committee meetings and legislative sessions, and communicating with APA members.
They build a database of bills of special interest to those interested in open government. This year the database included 38 bills potentially damaging to FOIA and-or other related laws. Occasionally, the APA representatives also call upon members of a loose-knit organization called the FOIA Coalition to help in contacting legislators and in testifying for or against a certain bill.
Legislators sponsor such bills sometimes because they are asked to do so by other special interest groups and are surprised when opposition arises. Three bills were introduced this year by Rep. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, which would have likely ended the practice of publishing in newspapers public notices, such as new city ordinances, in favor of posting them online.
But when shown the ramifications of such action, the House State Agencies Committee wisely referred the bills to an interim study committee.
However, the fight for public information lost some ground this year.
The most high-profile bill for secrecy was Act 145, signed by acting Gov. Mark Darr early in the session. It prohibits releasing the names and ZIP codes of applicants for and holders of concealed handgun licenses. The previous law had been the result of a compromise during the 2009 legislative session, exempting addresses from disclosure.
Act 1229, signed by Gov. Mike Beebe, is an example of bad legislation resulting from bad behavior of a few. It prohibits the release of the names and addresses of minor passengers that appear in motor vehicle accident reports. The reason: Some chiropractors were contacting the families of accident victims soliciting their business.
The legislation appears to exempt from disclosure even the name of a person under 18 who is seriously injured or killed in a traffic accident.
Act 411 exempts personal contact information such as telephone numbers, home addresses and e-mail addresses of non-elected school employees from disclosure in public documents. The law already exempted non-elected state, county and municipal employees.
So if you want to send your child’s principal an e-mail message, you’ll have to get the address some other way.
Act 235 extends the FOIA exemption for water system records by removing its 2013 sunset clause. The intent is to prohibit security measures designed to protect water systems from terrorists, but it also prevents citizens from knowing whether the measures taken are reasonable or effective.
FOIA advocates won more battles than we lost, though.
In one case objections to an unnecessary FOIA exemption may have helped sink an otherwise good bill. That would be legislation to establish criminal background check procedures for candidates for public office and to automatically disqualify candidates with prior felonies. Two companion bills also would have exempted the results of background checks from disclosure.
For whatever reason, the bills failed in committee and were referred to interim study.
One of the most potentially damaging bills was HB 1327, sponsored by Rep. Marshall Wright, D-Forrest City. It would have exempted the records of schools and institutions of higher education, as well as their board meetings, from FOIA when the records and meetings were related to security policies and procedures.
On the surface that’s a good idea since in theory such information could be useful to someone with evil intent. But this over-broad bill would also have kept the public from knowing whether our representatives are paying proper attention to security.
In a free and open society an informed citizenry is the best weapon against those with intent to cause harm.
Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.