HOW WE SEE IT: All Requests Are Valid Under FOI

— There’s no such thing as an informal Freedom of Information Act request.

This mythical distinction between “formal” and otherwise came up in the recent scandal at the Fayetteville Advertising and Promotion Commission. The executive director lied about having a public document. She handed it over after she received a “formal” FOI request, which was submitted after the Northwest Arkansas Times confirmed the package had been hand-delivered to her offce. She made this artificial distinction as if prior spoken and emailed requests for the document didn’t count.

There’s no state-sanctioned form a resident of this state must fill out to get a look at publicrecords. The person or agency receiving the request doesn’t get to write rules permitting some requests and dismissing others.

This isn’t complicated.

A request that’s spoken by anyone - not just anewspaper reporter - is just as valid as one that’s written, emailed, faxed, sent by text, announced with a bugle corps fanfare or inscribed on vellum with gold leaf lettering and sealed with wax.

All requests for a public document are equal because the law makes no distinctions or gradations. The Freedom of Information Act is that simple because it’s user-friendly. Drawing distinctions that simply don’t exist is nothing but a clumsy attempt to put up hoops for the public to jump through.

Therefore, we appreciate the Advertising and Promotion Commission’s vote Monday to make following the law a commission policy - although the commission doesn’t need us to point out how sad the irony is here. It’s an acute embarrassment that such a resolution was needed. We mention it only to drive home the point to other public employees throughout Arkansas: Don’t ever put your governing commission in a spot like this.

The whole purpose of the Freedom of Information Act is to let any resident of the state of Arkansas see public documents and to go to open meetings where the public’s business - his business - is discussed.

There are a few exceptions to protect personnel records and criminal investigations. Beyond that, the FOI’s based on the simple fact that public documents belong to the pubic. They aren’t the property of the agency that handles them. After all, those agencies belong to the public too. We pay the salaries of the people who work there.

Making a member of the public, who is ultimately the owner of a given public document, ask “pretty please” in a written request just to see the thing’s absurd. No one should have to hire a lawyer or fill out a form - or call up a newspaper and ask that it file the request for him - to see a public document.

In closing, this editorial about the FOI shouldn’t lead the commission to believe that the FOI is our only - or even our major - concern about the executive director.

The legal matter is one issue. Honesty is another. We think the facts are clear on both issues, but the legal complaint has a process to go through. While we understand that the commission chose not to act hastily when it decided to put Marilyn Heifner on administrative leave, our call for her removal stands.

This matter won’t cool oft. It’s a cold, hard fact already: Whatever happens in the criminal complaint, Heifner lied about having the document the Northwest Arkansas Times requested. She’s not fit for a position of public trust.

Opinion, Pages 5 on 02/15/2012