Panel opposes tweaks to Arkansas public-records law; repeal of hotel, restaurant tax-records exemption urged

The Arkansas Freedom of Information Act Task Force on Monday voted on four proposed tweaks to the public-records law, erring on the side of more disclosure and transparency in each case.

The committee -- tasked with making recommendations to the Arkansas General Assembly on amendments to the state Freedom of Information Act -- discussed bills that died during last year's legislation session (House Bills 1225, 1248, 1403 and 1662), but that may be introduced again in 2019.

The task force endorsed, with two dissenters, the proposal in HB1225 that would repeal an exemption for tax records of hotels and restaurants collected for local advertising and promotion commissions.

Task force members unanimously voted against the other three bills that would create new exemptions or extend the amount of time government entities may take before releasing certain records.

Opponents of the three proposals with new exemptions and time extensions argued they were unnecessary and would punish good-faith requesters as a result of the small percentage of those who make voluminous records requests with unrealistic expectations for how quickly a government entity can respond.

Proponents of those same measures acknowledged that "99 percent" of requesters act in good faith, but the handful who don't put government workers at risk of breaking the law or jeopardizing their primary responsibilities.

The task force was created during the 2017 legislative session after the introduction of about a dozen bills aiming to restrict public access to certain information. The committee consists of members appointed by the governor, legislative leaders, Arkansas Press Association, Arkansas Freedom of Information Coalition, the Arkansas professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, Arkansas Broadcasters Association, Association of Arkansas Counties and Arkansas Municipal League.

Speaking against the proposal in HB1662, which would have given government entities up to 15 days to fulfill "unduly burdensome" requests, Fort Smith attorney Joey McCutchen said he often makes requests and allows the agency to take the time it needs to respond in full.

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Managing Editor David Bailey also spoke against the bill, saying it was "a solution searching for a problem."

Lindsey Bailey, an attorney for the Association of Arkansas Counties, said HB1662 would be especially beneficial to officials in small counties with small staffs.

"The reality is some of these county officials do have political opponents, people with malicious intent toward them for whatever reason that the official has made them mad, and their only reason for asking this is to shut down their office and make them look bad," Lindsey Bailey said.

The bill was sponsored by Rep. Bob Johnson, D-Jacksonville. Johnson isn't seeking re-election, but he said he hopes to find someone to introduce similar legislation in 2019.

HB1248 would have exempted footage recorded by police body and dash cameras from public release during ongoing investigations. Opponents said it would allow law enforcement agencies to release video when it suits their interests but conceal it when it portrays them unfavorably.

A task force member, Jeff Hankins, Arkansas State University System's vice president for strategic communications and economic development, said he opposed the bill, but he also said it takes a long time to review and redact video footage, adding that he hopes that issue can be addressed at some point.

Little Rock Assistant Chief of Police Alice Fulk said fulfilling requests for video footage is time-consuming and expensive, particularly for departments smaller than her own.

Rep. Jeff Williams, R-Springdale, introduced the bill last year at the behest of Springdale Police Chief Mike Peters. The intent, Williams said, was to prevent footage of recent incidents from appearing "on the nightly news" and tainting potential jurors.

Williams said he wasn't planning to reintroduce the bill next year, but he may if he continues to receive input from interested stakeholders.

HB1403 would have exempted traffic accident reports from disclosure for 30 days after the wrecks.

Task force member Robert Steinbuch, a law professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, said the bill overreaches and would prevent the media from reporting on some events with high public interest.

No one spoke in favor of the bill, and its 2017 sponsor -- Rep. Justin Boyd, R-Fort Smith -- wasn't at the meeting. Task Force Chairman Ellen Kreth said Boyd told her that he likely wouldn't introduce the bill again.

Metro on 04/10/2018

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