Records-bid denial broke law, judge determines

FAYETTEVILLE -- A state association of conservation districts violated the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act when it refused to turn over documents related to specialty license plate sales to a Washington County conservation district, a circuit judge ruled.

The Washington County Soil and Water Conservation District filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit in mid-December against the Arkansas Association of Conservation Districts.

The lawsuit, filed in Washington County Circuit Court, contended the local district requested documents used by the state association to calculate a payment of $4,080 from the sale of the plates.

No documents were received. Follow-up requests were unsuccessful, according to the lawsuit. Ultimately, the association's director refused to release the documents, saying they may contain personal information about people who bought the plates, according to the lawsuit.

The parties agreed to an order issued Friday by Circuit Judge John Threet to resolve the case. Threet found the state association violated the law but also found that the documents have since been provided.

Threet also found the state association was ordered in a 2016 lawsuit to respond to any valid Freedom of Information Act requests from the Washington County district and again directed the state association to respond appropriately in the future.

Threet ordered reimbursement of filing fees for the lawsuit. Joey McCutchen, a Fort Smith attorney representing the Washington County district, waived attorney fees.

McCutchen said in email he'd like to see stiffer penalties for intentional violations added to the open records law. Violators of the law may be found guilty of a misdemeanor, with a maximum penalty of a $100 fine and 30 days in jail.

"This 2018 willful violation is exactly the reason why there needs to be teeth in FOIA," McCutchen said. "The Legislature needs to create meaningful civil penalties for willful FOIA violations in order to create a greater incentive for compliance and to promote transparency in government. Conduct rewarded is conduct repeated."

Conservation districts are political subdivisions of the state. Their specific responsibility is the management of soil and water resources. They were formed to keep decision making at the local level and each district is governed by a board of five directors who serve without pay. The state association's mission is to assist the conservation districts, according to its website.

Metro on 01/31/2019

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