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State's Freedom of Information Task Force opposes revival of failed bills

Proposals targeted access to records by John Moritz | October 16, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

The Arkansas Freedom of Information Task Force decided Monday that it opposed reintroducing in the next legislative session two bills that failed in 2017.

The legislation that got the heaviest look by the committee -- with nearly an hour and a half of debate -- was a bill put forward by state Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, to exempt attorney-client communications and attorney work product from the state's public record law.

Hester's bill, Senate Bill 373, passed in both the House and Senate in 2017, before an amended version failed in the Senate.

The bill was sought by the University of Arkansas System and other public university systems, which claimed that opposing lawyers were using the public records law to gain an advantage by requesting legal strategies and other communications developed by attorneys working for the state institutions.

By filing its own Freedom of Information Act request, however, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette found that state universities had responded to no such requests over a two-year period.

Hester did not attend Monday's task force meeting. A spokesman for the UA System said the system was not seeking a reintroduction of the legislation during the 2019 regular session. The session begins Jan. 14.

Still, the system's general counsel and vice president for university relations were on hand Monday to defend the need for such legislation.

University General Counsel JoAnn Maxey said that while she could not point to a single instance in which a public records request had affected the outcome of litigation, she said the threat of such requests caused attorneys at the university and other public offices to change their work habits by not drafting written memos or strategy pieces that could be requested.

Rusty Turner, the editor of the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, testified that the legislation was "far too broad and risks concealing all kinds of records from the public."

He noted that as written, the legislation would have allowed an agency to keep a record secret by stating that the document was merely related to the threat of litigation.

The task force agreed by a voice vote to oppose the measure. No one voiced support.

The task force also voted to oppose House Bill 2195, a failed 2017 bill that would have ended the requirement for state agencies to provide public records in a format other than online, if the requester asks for the document in another medium. No one spoke in support of that measure.

Metro on 10/16/2018

Print Headline: State panel opposes revival of failed bills

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