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Last week, members of the Fort Smith School Board were reminded of their responsibilities to the public. A judge issued a four-page ruling that the board last October violated the Arkansas Freedom of Information act by exchanging email that determined the make-up of the board's slate of officers for the coming year.

School Board President Deanie Mehl responded by saying "I hope we have finally closed this chapter and can focus on things we need to do."

What’s the point?

Sometimes, violations of Arkansas’ open government law need to be pointed out clearly.

That is our desire for public bodies, too -- that they can concentrate on what they need to do. And one of the best ways they can accomplish that is by making full adherence to the state's open government law a basic part of their DNA. It should not be viewed as a pesky law that gets in the way of the public's business. Rather, it has been, since 1967, the best guarantor that the public's business will be conducted in full view for all who want to see it.

The judge ruled the school board didn't intend any harm. Perhaps that's true. But intent, while appreciated, is a poor substitute for behavior. If the public's business is happening out of view, the impact is the same as if a public official intended that to happen.

Mehl earlier said the lawsuit was unnecessary, that she realized long ago the board had erred. There is value for the public, however, in a disinterested third party -- a judge in this case -- rendering a decision that spells out how a public body's attention to operating in the open fell short. The exchange of email as a substitute for open discussion of public policy is a snake of the Freedom of Information law, as in if it had been one, it would have bitten you.

The Freedom of Information Act, most of the time, is not complicated, at least when one approaches it from a spirit of open government. That's exactly the spirit in which it was passed.

Commentary on 06/20/2017

Print Headline: Out in the open

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