Gutting our FOI law


They're baaaack, fellow citizens. Those political persuaders clad in tailored suits and shiny shoes continue to gnaw away at our state's vaunted Freedom of Information Act.

The unfortunately ever-busy Arkansas Association of Counties (AAC) has crafted yet another FOIA-gutting bill this session that, if approved in its original form, would sustain its unrelenting efforts at cloaking the transparency of Arkansas counties' governmental affairs.

Thankfully, its earlier attempt with Senate Bill 567, which would alter our transparency law by helping hide the operations of county coroners, folded last week when it was pulled in committee. Let's hope that bad idea doesn't resurface.

Today I'll tell you about SB346, which could be acted upon as early as Monday. In its original version, the bill cleverly never even mentioned the FOIA, as such, while barely masking how it would prevent everyday Arkansans from having convenient access to dash-cam and body-cam videos from law enforcement.

Although this bill has been modestly amended, its problems largely persist.

Transparency advocates last week continued offering changes that would vastly improve the bill. No word on whether the AAC will agree to such alterations or pursue its apparent agenda of unchecked government.

For instance, the bill seeks to charge Arkansans healthy fees for any "medium of reproduction, supplies, equipment, maintenance and personnel time" people might seek.

Perhaps you can figure out what these charges are supposed to cover. My brain obviously is too small.

Robert Steinbuch, professor at the University of Arkansas Little Rock's Bowen School of Law, has a large brain. But alas, he, too, was bamfoozled by yet another of AAC's unnecessary FOIA-related bills.

"Exactly what 'maintenance' do I have to pay for in acquiring public records? Who knows? Maybe it's maintaining the bloated salaries of the AAC officials who are funded when bureaucrats divert tax dollars to this private organization so it can lobby against the interests of taxpayers," he told me.

Steinbuch, an outspoken, respected and staunch FOIA advocate, has been working through the Legislature to instill practical common sense into the bill. "SB346 seeks to charge for so-called 'equipment time.' So, not only does the AAC want to charge you (and all of us) for the government employees we already pay to support, now the lobbyists also want us to pay for publicly owned equipment we've already bought."

Look, I realize some readers couldn't care less about seemingly endless legislative efforts to restrict our rights as citizens under freedom of information law to be fully informed about the actions of our elected and appointed officials. It can seem boring to some who don't realize the potential dire consequences to society of not caring.

On the other hand, my heart and mind are with FOIA advocate and guru Steinbuch and Fort Smith attorney Joey McCutchen (who I call a legal bulldog when it comes to preserving and protecting our rights to full transparency).

I choose to continually inform you of legislative and judicial efforts to diminish or extinguish--mostly by well-compensated private lobbyists--the state's once-revered FOIA originally enacted by the Legislature under Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller in 1967, because it was a gift to our citizens we must never take for granted.

Only through collective vigilance and concern can we preserve the people's transparency law by defending it for ourselves and future generations. That means there must be those willing to speak assertively when threats to the statute arise.

Sadly enough, we still have legislators who will repeatedly cave to special interests who prefer to dilute the FOIA into total ineffectiveness.

One proposed step toward achieving that end is allowing state and local governments to charge our citizens what could amount to largely unaffordable fees to access information related to the performance and actions of office-holders, which is what SB346 would allow.

Never at a loss for descriptive phrases, Steinbuch called the original version of SB346 and the at-least temporarily withdrawn SB567 "train wrecks hitting station wagons full of nuns towing buses full of orphans."

Never content to be outdone by an exceptional lawyer, my analogy of both truly awful bills goes: "A fuel-laden dirigible nose-diving in flames into a crowded football stadium built alongside a packed nursing home during suppertime and visiting hours."

At some point, valued readers, perhaps our state's special-interest lobbyists will choose to realign their efforts in directions other than continually trying to dim the radiant glimmer of free speech and open records we proudly have cherished in the Natural State.

Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at