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FOIA bill raises concerns

OPINION September 10, 2023 at 4:05 a.m.

The Sentinel-Record echoes the concerns of our fellow journalists across the state regarding a bill that will be considered at Monday's special session of the Legislature that would essentially overhaul the state's Freedom of Information Act.

According to news reports, the bill would expand exemptions for records from disclosure under the FOIA, including records related to the governor's security, policymaking process for state agencies and records prepared by an attorney representing a state official.

The reports say the bill also would make it harder for those who win lawsuits against local government agencies under the Freedom of Information Act to recover attorney's fees.

The special session is set to begin Monday.

"The outcome of this proposal is not hard to imagine," Bill Kopsky, executive director of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, said in a statement to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

"It will lead to greater fraud and abuse of office. It will lead to more secret deals developed in backrooms and sprung on the public at the last minute when it's too late for the public to have meaningful input."

The Arkansas Press Association, in response to the upcoming session's Freedom of Information Act bill, issued the following statement on Friday:

"The Arkansas Press Association agrees that the security of our elected officials, their spouses and their children should be taken seriously and, where appropriate, sensitive information as it pertains to security should be protected. If that was the only focus of this bill, we would certainly understand the governor's reasoning for calling a special session. But it's not.

"This bill goes far beyond the goal of protecting our public officials and their families. If this bill passes, it will drastically weaken Arkansas FOIA laws and the public's access to information. For all intents and purposes, this bill will eliminate the ability to hold our government accountable by shielding processes that provide essential context for decisions that affect millions of Arkansans.

"There must be transparency in government processes and accountability as to how taxpayer dollars are spent.

"Furthermore, the APA adamantly disagrees with the notion that this bill, in its entirety, constitutes an emergency. Security is just a small slice of an otherwise larger, transparency-killing piece of legislation.

"The APA has agreed to participate in a working group that has been tasked with reviewing and recommending changes to FOIA for the 2025 general session. This group met for the very first time today. It's disheartening this group has had no time to review or give recommendations on these momentous changes being proposed. Our association's participation in this group demonstrates our willingness to be reasonable and to seek common ground. However, to fundamentally change these laws in a three-day special session with a bill that was drafted just this week is imprudent.

"This bill is far-reaching, applying to all state offices -- not only in the present but for future administrations as well. Do we really want a blackout of information about how decisions are arrived upon in state government?

"We hope that the members of the General Assembly will choose to stand not with the APA or the Governor but with their constituents who have a right to know how their government operates."

The Sentinel-Record joins with the APA and other newsgathering organizations in voicing concerns this bill will drastically weaken the FOIA in ways that have nothing to do with the security of elected officials, and weaken our access -- and the public's access -- to information that will prevent abuses of power and keep our officials accountable.

Print Headline: FOIA bill raises concerns


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