10 bills aim to chip at Arkansas public-files law

Governor: Wary but of open mind

When Gov. Asa Hutchinson campaigned for governor in 2006, he told a Springdale Rotary Club that any attempt to weaken the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act would stop with him.

"I would pledge to veto any bills that would weaken the Freedom of Information laws in this state," he said at that March meeting. "It is something that must be maintained with constant vigilance."

Though Hutchinson lost that race, he sits at the governor's desk today during what open records advocates, including the news media, say is an unprecedented attack on the public's right to government documents.

Hutchinson told reporters Thursday that he believes exemptions to the open information law should be narrow. But he did not say he would oppose them.

"I think all of the bills that I've seen thus far are designed for a specific purpose that makes sense. But I appreciate the press pointing out if there is too broad of an exemption that needs to be narrowed," Hutchinson said.

As the Arkansas legislative session enters its third month, at least 10 bills are moving forward that together, opponents say, would cripple the public's access to government documents.

Some proposed exemptions apply to specific records or agencies, such as Senate Bill 131 regarding State Capitol Police records.

Others could exempt almost any public document from disclosure, says University of Arkansas at Little Rock professor and Freedom of Information Act expert Robert Steinbuch.

SB373, for example, would allow public agencies to keep secret any record their attorney has seen or offered comment on, Steinbuch said.

House Bill 1622 would allow agencies to postpone producing public records from a maximum of three days to almost indefinitely, he said.

"This is going to gut the FOIA entirely," he said of those two bills.

As the volume of debate has risen in the Legislature in the past week, at least two lawmakers say they'll take another look at their bills.

Rep. Andy Davis, R-Little Rock, said Friday that he will ask that SB373 regarding attorney-client privilege be sent back to committee for further debate. The bill has been awaiting a House floor vote.

"The debate on it has grown to the point where I think we need to take another look at it before we give it final passage," Davis said.

Although he believes the state needs to address problems that public agencies face in preserving attorney-client privilege in litigation, this bill "may not be it," Davis said.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, says: "I'm very comfortable with it." Almost every time he files a bill, Hester said, "someone is screaming the world is going to come to an end."

Rep. Bob Johnson, D-Jacksonville, said he expects to add amendments to HB1622 that would retain a three-day maximum limit for public agencies to provide most records, and spell out the rules for "overly burdensome" requests that would get more time for a response.

Johnson said he's responding to critics who said the bill is "still a little vague."

The governor is among those critics: HB1622 is "extremely broad and needs to be narrowed and tailored, but there is an issue," said governor's office spokesman J.R. Davis.

The media typically make narrow requests, but some requesters take advantage of the system, costing time and money of state and local governments, Davis said.

Adopted in 1967 when Republican Winthrop Rockefeller was governor, Arkansas' Freedom of Information Act, Arkansas Code Annotated 25-19-101 et seq, sets out legislators' intent this way: "It is vital in a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner" so citizens can stay informed about public officials' performance, decisions and policies.

Exemptions are often backed, Steinbuch says, by public agencies and staff members, who may have an interest in shielding wrongdoing or embarrassing actions from the public.

Backers of Freedom of Information Act exemption bills this year who have spoken or presented materials to committees include the University of Arkansas and Arkansas State University systems, Pulaski County and other county organizations, including sheriffs and county clerk offices.

These are among other bills that would amend the state's Freedom of Information Act and what they would exempt:

• SB12 -- Emergency and security records and unspecified "other information" for public schools, kindergarten through universities.

• SB131 -- State Capitol Police records.

• HB1236 -- Video or photos showing a police officer's death.

• HB1403 -- Withhold vehicle accident reports for 30 days after the crash.

mHB1469 -- Arkansas Department of Community Correction emergency preparedness documents.

• HB1590 -- Records related to Governor's Mansion and grounds held by Arkansas State Police.

Two more bills would amend the public records law in other ways. HB1623 would allow public records to be uploaded to the Internet and be in compliance for Freedom of Information Act requests. HB1571 concerns bulk copying of public records, aimed at commercial, non-press entities.

Monday is the filing deadline for new bills.

For any exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act that arrive on Hutchinson's desk to be signed into law, the governor today promises not a veto them but to give them careful examination.

"In 2006, he didn't know that people were going to be using FOIA to get litigation strategies from the University of Arkansas -- which is a problem," Davis said. "In 2006, he didn't know people would use it to get security information. So things change. The governor supports transparency in government, but there also has to be control to it.

"His genuine stance on FOIA is that it is an important aspect of government, and it's important that there's transparency in government. However, there are issues, as I mentioned before, of people abusing it for their personal gain -- whether it's for the litigation strategies, for getting the security feeds or security information of individuals."

Davis said the governor's schedule was fully booked Friday when a reporter asked for an interview.

SundayMonday on 03/05/2017