FOIA transparency advocates submit constitutional amendment to AG; initiated act to follow

by Talk Business & Politics staff ([email protected]) 545 views 

Arkansas Citizens for Transparency, a ballot title group seeking to imbed a Freedom of Information Act into the state constitution and state statute, submitted a draft of their constitutional amendment proposal to Attorney General Tim Griffin on Monday (Nov. 27).

ACT said the amendment submitted for AG review does three things:

  • Creates an Arkansas citizen’s right to government transparency;
  • Requires a law making government business less transparent to pass through approval by the people of Arkansas; and
  • Allows the state of Arkansas to be sued in state court for failure to comply with Arkansas government transparency laws.

Read a copy of the proposed amendment here.

“We are hopeful that the Attorney General will approve the measure as drafted but stand ready to address any concerns raised by the Attorney General and his office in the approval process,” the group said in a statement.

Members of the drafting committee include Sen. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, Chairman; former Republican Rep. Nate Bell; David Couch; Jennifer Waymack Standerfer; Robert Steinbuch; John E. Tull, III; and Ashley Kemp Wimberley, executive director of the Arkansas Press Association.

A proposed initiated act will also be submitted. It will include details related to the state’s Freedom of Information Act currently on the books. In general, it will:

  • Change as little as possible in the existing FOIA, with the primary exception being to provide a definition for “public meeting,” which has been a hole in the FOIA.
  • Safeguard the ability of any citizen of Arkansas to enforce the FOIA by protecting the ability to recover attorneys’ fees in the event that a FOIA request is wrongfully denied.
  • Create a penalty for bad actors who knowingly violate the FOIA.

A final public meeting on the initiated act proposal’s language will be held on Wednesday, November 27 from 4 to 5:30 p.m. via Zoom. Read the current working copy of the initiated act proposal here.

“We are grateful for the overwhelming input we have received on the draft language from every corner of the state. We are eager to finalize the language so that the signature-gathering process necessary to put these measures on the ballot can begin. We remain steadfast in our hope that the people of Arkansas will have an opportunity to vote on these measures in November 2024 and that Arkansas will continue to serve as a model for government transparency for the nation,” the group said.

The state’s Freedom of Information Act came under scrutiny and changes in a recent special session called by Gov. Sarah Sanders.

Sanders initially asked for a bill that would change FOIA provisions by including the federal exemption that would significantly limit the information available about the deliberations of officials at state agencies, recommendations about policy, and other governance matters. She said, at the time, the effort was about making state government more efficient.

The original bill would also exempt from FOIA any records about “planning or provision of security services provided to the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, the Attorney General, the Secretary of State, the Auditor of State, the Treasurer of State, the Commissioner of State Lands, members of the General Assembly, Justices of the Supreme Court, or Judges of the Court of Appeals.”

The security issue primarily involved details about who uses the state plane, which is operated by the Arkansas State Police (ASP). The plane is used by Arkansas governors to travel.

The bill eventually approved in both chambers included only the security provisions and a retroactivity clause that made the exemptions retroactive to June 1, 2022. The previous bills had the retroactive provision at Jan. 1, 2022. When she signed the bill, Gov. Sanders said she was not finished seeking FOIA changes.