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Bill that would change Freedom of Information Act’s open meetings requirement fails in committee

by Neal Earley | March 16, 2023 at 4:01 a.m.
Arkansas state Rep. Mary Bentley, R-Perryville, listens to debate during a House session at the state Capitol in Little Rock in this Feb. 6, 2023 file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

A bill that would change Arkansas' Freedom of Information Act to make it easier for local elected officials to meet outside of the public view was rejected in a voice vote by the House Committee on State Agencies.

House Bill 1610 by Rep. Mary Bentley, R-Perryville, would have amended the opening meetings portion of the state's Freedom of Information Act to apply only if there were a quorum of lawmakers present.

A minimum quorum is the number of lawmakers needed to be present to take action and differs from body to body.

Bentley said the change was needed to make it easier for local lawmakers to meet to conduct business, and said it would put Arkansas' Sunshine Law in line with how 47 other states regulate public meetings.

Currently under Arkansas' Freedom of Information Act, if two or more elected officials meet to discuss official business it could be considered a meeting and must be open to the public, according to the Arkansas Attorney General's 2022 Freedom of Information Act Handbook. State lawmakers are largely exempted from state's Freedom of Information Act.

"We have quorum court members that are so afraid to talk to each other they won't even open the envelope that has information about the meeting until they sit down [for the meeting]," Bentley said. "We have bound the hands of our [justices of the peace] and in essence we have silenced the voice, the closest voice, to we the people."

Most of the people signed up to testify during Wednesday's hearing spoke against the bill, saying it would weaken Arkansas' Freedom of Information Act.

Joey McCutchen, an attorney from Fort Smith, said the bill would have been a blow against government transparency.

"We're entitled to see the sausage-making," McCutchen said. "If they [elected officials] come in and they've already made their decision, there's no discussion, the hard discussions had been done at McDonald's or on secret email chains, the public body is going to take the backlash."

Jimmie Cavin, an activist from Conway, said he considers Arkansas' current Freedom of Information Act to be the "gold standard" for the nation.

"I don't want to weaken it to be like [the] other 47 states," Cavin said.

Sam Strain, a member of the Faulkner County Quorum Court, spoke in favor of the bill, saying it creates a "balance of power" issue between county judges and justices of the peace. Strain said county judges are not restrained from meeting with other elected officials to talk policy, while quorum court members have to meet publicly and with advance notice to do the same.

"I have mentioned to some people it kind of creates a benevolent dictatorship in the counties," Strain said. "Because the judge can talk to any of the quorum court members, and there is legislation or ordinances and things like that are drawn up that are later a surprise to the rest of us."

Print Headline: Records act loosening rejected by panel


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