Bills to narrow Arkansas public-files law get panels' OK

Measures pertain to schools, police, Governor’s Mansion

Three voice votes by Arkansas legislative committees advanced bills Thursday to narrow Arkansans' rights to government records.

All three votes favored keeping more records out of public view. Now the bills move to Senate and House floors.

In presenting Senate Bill 12, aimed at protecting school security information from terrorists and plotters, Rep. Robin Lundstrum, R-Elm Springs, said the bill would prohibit release of records "that upon disclosure could reasonably be expected to be detrimental to the public safety."

But Robbie Wills, a lawyer with Wills Law Firm who spoke on behalf of the Arkansas Press Association against the legislation, said SB12 is far too broad in what it keeps from the public.

It would exempt information from kindergartens through universities relating to the number of licensed security officers, school resource officers, or other security personnel, as well as any personal information about those individuals.

Concerned parents couldn't learn whether a school even has a security plan, Wills said. A better compromise would be redacting particular information of concern -- like where security officers are located, he said.

The other two bills approved in committees would curb the reach of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act focused on records pertaining to the Governor's Mansion and grounds (House Bill 1590), and camera footage showing the death of any police officer (HB1236).

Also Thursday, other legislators reviewed at least one pending bill that an Arkansas law professor and the Arkansas Press Association have said would gut the state's Freedom of Information Act.

Rep. Bob Johnson, D-Jacksonville, said he met with supporters and opponents about HB1622, which would change the current standard that requires government agencies to provide most records requests in no more than three days.

Johnson's bill would allow an agency to determine that a request is too large, complicated or "burdensome" and to reply in writing with a longer time period to fulfill the request.

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"The bill's going to stand as written," Johnson said, after meeting with Pulaski County's lawyers, who favor agencies being granted more time, and with Arkansas Press Association representatives, who prefer a three-day time limit.

"It really gives the person who's requesting more ammunition. I think it's best for everybody," Johnson said.

"We tried to write a bill to protect the press," he added.

UALR law professor Robert Steinbuch says HB1622 will allow state and local officials to postpone providing records indefinitely and will require people to wage legal battles that they can't afford.

An author of the Arkansas Freedom of Information textbook, Steinbuch said: "This puts all of the decision-making on whether to even comply with the FOIA in the hands of the very bureaucrats who don't want to comply with the FOIA. This bill is designed to undercut any real government transparency.

"This bill is anti-citizen, anti-openness and anti-press. It cannot be read any other way."

In other debate concerning bills to limit the Freedom of Information Act:

• The Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee on Thursday recommended approval of HB1590 by Rep. DeAnn Vaught, R-Horatio, which would exempt certain records of the Arkansas State Police regarding the Governor's Mansion and mansion grounds from the Freedom of Information Act of 1967.

HB1590 would exempt from public disclosure "data, records, surveillance footage, security procedures, emergency plans and other information compiled or possessed by the Department of Arkansas State Police

State Police Director Bill Bryant told the Senate committee that the legislation would help protect Gov. Asa Hutchinson and the first lady.

• Rick Green, a government affairs consultant with the Wills Law Firm, spoke against HB1236, which would exempt any police body or dash camera footage depicting an officer's death. He said he "regretted" having to speak against the legislation, filed in response to video of a Trumann police officer's murder going viral on the Internet.

Provisions of the law allowing press groups to seek a court order for footage with "compelling public interest," did not go far enough to ease transparency concerns.

"We're just worried about the continuing erosion of FOIA," Green said.

Some members of the House Judiciary Committee, which approved HB1236 on a voice vote, said they were "disgusted" by opposition to the proposal to keep deaths off the Internet.

Rep. David Whitaker, D- Fayetteville, said he was sympathetic to concerns about the "drip" of new exemptions to the law, but said the bill solved a real issue in the Internet age.

"I don't think the drafters [of the Freedom of Information law] could have imagined a world like this," Whitaker said.

Information for this article was contributed by Michael R. Wickline, Brian Fanney and John Moritz of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

A Section on 03/03/2017