Dark days are ahead for the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act, if the Republican-led Legislature continues its assault on open government. That means dark days are ahead for the people of Arkansas.
The regular session of the 91st Arkansas General Assembly, like all such sessions, has a lot going on, from guns on campus to higher taxes on gasoline to lower taxes on poorer Arkansans to educational changes that threaten to whittle away at the state's public education system. It's a lot to follow, and issues get lost in the flood of bills in the House of Representatives and the state Senate.
What’s the point?
Lawmakers working in the public’s interests will fend off attacks on the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act and the public’s right to know.
Mixed in with all that are bills about how government operates and, most importantly for the people it's supposed to serve, how openly it must operate. This session features the most aggressive attacks on the public's right to know about its government since Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller proudly signed the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act in 1967.
Among those attacks is a proposal in Senate Bill 373 to create an attorney-
client records exemption for government officials. Never mind they are doing the public's business. Never mind that the attorneys are providing important legal advice relevant to the public's evaluation of the performance of elected and appointed officials. Never mind that the current law has never put too heavy a burden on government. State Sen. Bart Hester of Cave Springs along with state Rep. Andy Davis of Little Rock would create a Maxwell Smart-like cone of silence that would shield volumes of information from public review. At least Maxwell Smart was funny. Senate Bill 373 is dangerous because it can be applied to practically any piece of public information someone in government wants to keep under wraps.
Why do our elected officials want our votes but they don't want us to have access to information our government keeps, information that often reflects how well our elected officials are (or are not) performing?
Other proposals continue the new affinity for chipping away at the public's access. Proponents make what sounds like good arguments, such as a desire to shield public safety plans from prying eyes of terrorists or others with ill intent (keep in mind some of these lawmakers view anyone who disagrees with them as having ill intent). But as with so many bills in Arkansas' Legislature, they are not written with concern for the finer legal points. They're too broad, giving ample cover for government to hide ineptitude, dishonesty, quid pro quo deals and all kinds of political skulduggery. In cases where specific language might lead to some agreement about keeping security plans secure, the bills go too far and give too much leeway for government to deny requests for information.
Exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act are often interpreted by government officials in ways least favorable to the release of public information. Just examine opinions from the Arkansas attorney general about records requests. The state and local officials asking the questions are regularly attempting to read the requirements as narrowly as possible. It is our contention that open government interpretations ought to favor the people government serves, the everyday Arkansan.
The Freedom of Information Act is a lot like our valiant emergency service providers -- firefighters, EMT's, police officers -- around the state. Residents go through most of their lives without a need to call those professional life-savers and protectors, but we all benefit from their constant and vigilant presence. Even if one never has a reason to contact them, their work still makes our communities safer for all. And, in those circumstances in which Arkansans discover an unexpected need for an emergency response or just someone to check out a suspicious person, are we not glad, are we not relieved, that they stand at the ready to respond?
What happens if the local emergency services are neglected while most people pay little attention? When a crisis erupts, the shortcomings will become apparent all too quickly.
People don't realize they need a strong Freedom of Information Act until they need it, until a proposed project affects them or until they get caught up in bureaucratic red tape and need to access information. But the act's use day in and day out is serving the public's interests by keeping government accountable, by making sure secrecy is not the operational standard by which government officials can have their way and hide their actions from view.
Think of the current federal court case in which Republican state Rep. Micah Neal of Springdale has pleaded guilty to taking thousands of dollars in kickbacks for directing state taxpayers' money to specific private organizations. Former State Sen. Jon Woods of Springdale has now been indicted, accused of even more egregiously scheming to make money illicitly by selling the powers granted to him by the voters of his Senate District.
The Arkansas Freedom of Information has been a powerful tool for reporters trying to help Arkansans understand just how the scheme appears to have worked, how lawmakers created what amounts to a slush fund of taxpayer dollars to benefit their political careers and how the system did little to guard against abuse.
But large-scale journalistic investigations are not the big reason the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act should be jealously guarded. The law is, after all, not the media's law. It empowers Arkansans, not journalists, to have access to open government meetings and the records generated by government agencies. Whatever chips away at the Freedom of Information Act is chipping away at the rights of every Arkansan.
Our Founding Fathers drafted a U.S. Constitution that put limits on government. They knew their young nation needed government deriving its powers from the people rather than one in which the government holds all the power and hands out certain privileges as it sees fit. They knew government's natural state involves the concentration of power, so they set about to create a system that jealously seeks to preserve liberty and individual rights from encroachment by powerful government interests.
It is our contention that information -- that discussed in government meetings and that kept by government agencies -- is the foundation for preserving freedom and protecting from government growing too powerful and abusive. Republicans, from whom the attacks on Arkansas' Freedom of Information Act are largely coming, once understood that, until they became the majority party at the state Capitol. Now, they sound like the party that most trusts government and, specifically, government behind closed doors.
The Founding Fathers created three branches of government to serve as checks and balances on each other, to attempt to ensure none of the three gains too much power. The media has often been called the Fourth Estate or the fourth branch of government because of its role as a watchdog against government authoritarianism and abuse. It's a well-earned description based on the history of the press in this nation, regardless of all the vitriolic venom spewed at it these days from the Oval Office and the right wing of the Republican Party.
Truth be told, however, it's the citizens of this state and nation who ought to be referred to as the first branch of government. It is their votes that temporarily give power to individual officeholders and political parties. It is in their interests that elected representatives should constantly be working. And it is their determination of how much accountability they will demand that will ultimately matter in how government treats the people.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson and state legislators who believe in the people should ensure one of their predecessors' finest legislative achievements, the Freedom of Information Act, remains strong, because the people of Arkansas deserve light, not darkness.
Commentary on 03/12/2017
Print Headline: Closing the curtains