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Letters to the editor

April 5, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

Bill will hide important information from public

The Arkansas Freedom of Information Act gives taxpayers the right to access public records and attend public meetings, information and meetings that are paid for by our tax dollars. House Bill 1280 will harm those rights.

It will do that by expanding the executive session exemption under FOIA. As it stands now, executive sessions, where the public is excluded, are limited mostly to personnel matters. It's worked fine that way since 1967.

HB1280 is disguised as a bill to make it easier to attract economic development by allowing city and county governments to meet in executive session when someone makes the decision that certain records are related to economic development.

I heard testimony last week in committee that Arkansas is missing out on many economic development opportunities because our elected officials cannot meet in private sessions to discuss these proposed projects. Yet the mayors, city administrators and others, including the director of the Little Rock Port Authority, who spoke in favor of the bill could not point to a single project that had been lost because they could not meet in executive session. It is foolish to fix something that is not broken. This is a bill that is harmful and not needed.

I believe all governmental meetings should be public meetings and that is necessary for a functioning democracy. Often when our elected officials are discussing economic development projects, there are incentives provided by the county or city to the company proposing to locate. Those incentives can cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

Another troubling provision is that while the bill requires an audio recording to be made of the meeting, that recording will never, under the current bill, be disclosed to the public. It will be held for one year unless there is litigation. That is a ridiculously short period of time. Oftentimes it takes years for projects to be completed. Evidence or allegation of wrongdoing may not be apparent until well after that one-year period. Then how will we hold our elected representatives accountable if there was wrong doing or poor decision making?

While this bill is about executive sessions, in real life I see our elected officials routinely hold private meetings and declare them "only advisory." Advisory boards do not have to meet in public because they don't have governing powers. When our elected officials meet in what they say are only advisory meetings or boards, we have no option to contest that unless we file litigation. Litigation is expensive and out of my reach, and out of the reach of most citizens.

There are several attempts by the Legislature this year to chip away at our rights under FOIA, and this is one of the really bad ones. FOIA keeps us in the know about our government and elected officials. It provides much-needed transparency. Our FOIA is very important in keeping government transparent and accountable. Please contact your legislators and let them know this bill is bad and ask them to vote against HB 1280.

Beth Coger



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