LITTLE ROCK — The director of the state Game and Fish Commission said Thursday the agency’s legal staff is researching whether certain information should not have been redacted in a report on a survey of commission employees.
The report, which revealed widespread employee discontent with upper management and the agency’s governing board, was conducted by Responsive Management of Harrisonburg, Va., at the commission’s request as a way to gauge employee morale. A report on the survey released this week contains large sections that are blacked out.
Game and Fish Director Loren Hitchcock said Thursday there are "certain elements of (the report) that can be deemed as performance- and personnel-related items" and therefore exempt from the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act. The law exempts employee evaluation and job performance records unless they form the basis of a decision to suspend or terminate an employee.
But Hitchcock said the redactions also include criticism targeting specific commissioners, and he was not sure they could be considered employees.
The redactions were done by Little Rock law firm Quattlebaum, Grooms, Tull & Burrow. Hitchcock said the commission’s legal staff is looking into whether the redactions were proper.
"I think it’s open to discussion on if the redaction of the commissioners will maintain," he said. "That’s how it was sent to us and distributed (Wednesday), but by all means if the FOIA law is inclusive that commissioners are not employees … then obviously their names will be put back in."
The redacted information in the report includes not just names but entire sentences and paragraphs from employees’ comments.
Hitchcock said the agency has not requested an attorney general’s opinion on the matter.
"I think there is some (past) opinions out there," he said.
Tom Larimer, executive director of the Arkansas Press Association, said Thursday there is no basis for applying the FOI’s exemption for employee evaluations to the commissioners because they are not employees . Applying the exemption to administrators is also questionable, in Larimer’s view.
"I can’t imagine a scenario in which these would become part of somebody’s personnel file," he said.
In 2010, the Game and Fish Commission drew criticism from Gov. Mike Beebe and others after its governance committee proposed a policy on public records that would have provided less openness than the FOI, which members argued at the time did not apply to the commission. The proposal ultimately was scrapped.
The survey was conducted in May and June and drew responses from 413 of the agency’s 559 employees. Among other things, respondents complained of harassment, intimidation and bullying by upper management; a feeling of being undervalued, unappreciated and not respected; and a sense that promotions are politically motivated and not based on merit.
Hitchcock said commissioners and administrators will study the results and look for ways to make internal changes to improve morale — though he said some of the most common complaints concern pay plans and cost-of-living pay increases, which are out of the commission’s hands.
"Some of those things obviously we don’t have control over. That’s legislated and mandated at a much higher level," he said. "But we need to be sensitive to those things and maintain a focus on that but yet look at the things that we can control individually, internally, and give some solid feedback and then let these people see that changes have been made, you have been heard."