OPINION

OPINION | MIKE MASTERSON: A reader speaks


I appreciate readers who recognize the value to public transparency of our Freedom of Information Act. One recent transplant to Fayetteville from Texarkana, where he served on the Texarkana, Ark., Board of Directors, used the FOIA laws in Texas and here and found what Arkansas has had since 1967 vastly superior.

Accordingly, Weldon Johnson sent an email to four Arkansas legislators during the most recent session when bills to change the law were being proposed (as they seem to be whenever the Legislature convenes). Reps. Carol Dalby and Denise Garner and Sens. Jimmy Hickey and Greg Leding received Johnson's message.

He urged them and the Legislature to "leave the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act alone."

I wanted to share Johnson's thoughts with you today as encouragement to every citizen to do likewise when future political efforts are made to weaken or erode this act.

"I disagree with the proposed changes that substantially weaken the act. While placing a burden on the many boards and other government agencies, each entity has agreed to operate under this law," Johnson wrote.

He said while on the Texarkana Board of Directors he experienced a large discrepancy between the Arkansas and Texas FOI laws. Johnson said he used the act twice in Arkansas and once in Texas under that state's FOIA. "The first time I used the Arkansas act was in the 1970s. A local board backed by a federal agency was not forthcoming in allowing me to examine its records despite being in litigation with my father's company for several years. When finally the entity let us examine the documents, we found a handwritten memo describing that officer's desire to 'break that company.' That disclosure at trial was instrumental in our company winning the lawsuit."

During the early 2000s he again turned to the Arkansas FOIA. "A state bureaucracy was denying me access and a copy of a one-page report that I needed to effectively proceed with my work. And I had already seen the report and even knew which filing cabinet drawer it was in at the local office," he said. "The person in charge of that office wanted to give me a copy but said his superiors would not let me see it. I visited with Meredith Oakley [this paper's previous Voices page editor and longtime supporter of the Arkansas FOIA] and she coached me on how to approach the agency. In addition, she sent me a pamphlet about using the act. I continue to carry this guide in my briefcase.

"I approached the local office again and requested a copy of the document, which was promptly denied. I then said I wanted the copy according to the FOIA. The local supervisor stated I would need to make a written request to the state office in Little Rock; wait for a reply with a minimum of three days and, if approved, I would have to drive to Little Rock and pay for the research and copying costs.

"When I declined to do this the local supervisor asked me what I would do next. I told him I was going to the local prosecuting attorney to escalate the issue. During all of this time I was leaning against that filing cabinet containing the report.

"He asked me to wait while he called the Little Rock office for guidance. Afterwards, he gave me a copy of the report.

"My experience using the Texas act was horrible," Johnson continued. "I was told to wait at least six months for a decision, which would then go to the state attorney general for review. After more months, the request was denied.

"A year later, in my administrative claim against that agency, it was revealed the information I had requested was on a sequestered hard drive and the agency knew that the information on the hard drive had been backdated."

The Texas law in his case proved worthless if an agency can avoid compliance by using such roadblocks.

Johnson and fellow members of the Texarkana Board of Directors were required to act faithfully under the FOIA. "Though this sometimes was a burden to the board members, it was our duty to follow the law," he said.

Such an attitude is a sterling example for officials across Arkansas to emulate.

Why AI anyway?

I was on the deck the other day watching our little taco terrier Benji snapping at flies when I imagined a mower that could trim our yard similar to a Roomba on the inside.

That led me to ponder the rapid rise of artificial intelligence and the role it's soon likely to play in our society. More importantly, why are we even pursuing it? What and who is behind the push to dehumanize?

Is pursuing such radical and potentially catastrophic change truly advancement or progress? Are we trying to eliminate future creative contributions altogether?

Is the goal of those determined to develop such technology to, among other things, replace most humans in the workplace, thus eliminating jobs, income, self-respect and sense of purpose? And what happens about the tax bases so vital to municipalities and the national welfare?

Has anyone in charge really thought this through?


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 mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.


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