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Task force backs open records bill

Measure seeks change to unshield some private foundations’ activities by Rachel Herzog | February 13, 2021 at 3:22 a.m.
Sen. Dan Sullivan (left), R-Jonesboro, talks with Sen. Mark Johnson, R-Little Rock, Thursday Jan. 14, 2021 on the Senate floor at the state Capitol in Little Rock. More photos at arkansasonline.com/115session/.

The Arkansas Freedom of Information Act Task Force on Friday endorsed a bill that would amend the definition of public records to include those of some private foundations performing government functions.

Senate Bill 195, by Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro, would apply to private organization or private entities performing governmental functions or supporting governmental agencies or public entities through activities such as fundraising and providing financial or in-kind support equivalent to $1 million or more a year.

"The idea is when you're using government money for a government function, then the narrow interpretation of that is there is a degree of transparency there, and I'm fully supportive of that," Sullivan told the panel last week.

The task force, which meets during regular sessions, makes recommendations on bills that have provisions dealing with the state open records law.

Friday was the second time Sullivan had taken his bill before the task force, after he agreed to amend it to address some members' concerns last week. Sullivan said Friday that he had edited the bill to make it clear that it would not apply to vendors, such as entities universities contract with to provide food or janitorial services.

He previously noted that it would apply to organizations like the Razorback Foundation, which is the fundraising arm for the athletic department at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.

[RELATED: See complete Democrat-Gazette coverage of the Arkansas Legislature at arkansasonline.com/legislature]

"There's a level of scrutiny that they should be open to," Sullivan said Feb. 5.

Task force member Jeff Hankins, vice president for strategic communications and economic development for the Arkansas State University System, called the bill "a huge intrusion of government" on private entities that don't have decision-making power over public entities.

Hankins said the bill lacked clarity with regard to protecting the privacy of prospective donors, and noted that no other section of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act segregates documents based on the amount of money involved. He said the bill could inadvertently dilute the open records law because there are nonprofits raising less than $1 million with some records that are public.

"It's just an unreasonable intrusion on private businesses and private foundations," he said.

The vote was 6-2, with Hankins and Will Gruber casting the dissenting votes.

The task force also endorsed another bill by Sullivan on Friday, which would amend the open records act's definition of a meeting to include "a gathering in which any matter relating to a public entity on which an action may be taken by the governing body is discussed in person, by telephone, electronically" or by other means.

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