NWA EDITORIAL | Lawmaker pushes for keeping more of the public’s business out of sight

Lawmaker promotes secrecy in government

This week is recognized across the country as Sunshine Week, an annual observance by advocates of open government that recognizes the importance of keeping public information and decision making in the public view.

It is sadly ironic, then, that Rep. Mary Bentley of Perryville this week filed House Bill 1610, a piece of legislation that would gut the Arkansas Freedom of Information as it related to promoting the open discussion of public business in government meetings.

Her bill proposed liberalizing the limits on elected or other public officials who are part of decision-making governmental bodies. She wants to allow local elected officials to meet privately to discuss public business so long as there's no quorum present.

A quorum is the minimum number of board or council members required to be present before a public body can cast votes and make decisions.

The Freedom of Information Act, an incredibly valuable law that protect's Arkansans' right to inspect public records and attend public meetings, doesn't specify a certain number necessary to trigger the law's protections, but traditionally interpretations of the law have promoted the interests of the public. That is, members of public bodies should avoid discussing the public's business outside of public view. If two or more members of a decision-making body meet to discuss public business, the public should be made aware and invited to listen in.

And doesn't that make the most sense? Elected or appointed officials are representatives of the public, doing business on their behalf. It's ludicrous to suggest the public is best served by authorizing its representatives to operate outside the public's view.

Bentley, however, said it's important to make it easier for local officials to meet and conduct business. To which we say: Bull hockey. Her idea essentially buys into the all-too-familiar notion that operating in public really is an inconvenience to public officials. Wouldn't it be so much easier if those pesky citizens just elected us then left us alone to do what we think is best? How dare they demand to know what we're doing with their money and the legal authority they've given us.

Her bill is one of the worst we've seen when it comes to open and transparent government.

Allowing two or more members to meet privately on public business would lead to meaningless public meetings where decisions are only ratified, but not thoroughly discussed. The public will remain in the dark until anything they might have to say on the matter has no opportunity to have an impact. As open government advocate and Fort Smith attorney Joey McCutcheon said this week at the state Capitol, the public is "entitled to see the sausage making." Indeed, that is exactly what the public needs to see so they can ask questions, spot self-dealing or misuse of taxpayer resources, and hold elected officials accountable to what they tell us all to get themselves elected.

There is a solution for people who aren't comfortable discussing public business in front of their constituents: Go into private business. Use your own money. But as long as you're allocating public resources and using the powers of public office to make decisions impacting taxpayers and the communities where they live, have the integrity to conduct yourself in an open and transparent manner. If that makes anyone uncomfortable, maybe public service isn't for you.

Thankfully, the House Committee on State Agencies rejected Bentley's misguided and tone-deaf proposal on Wednesday. Whether that's the end of it remains to be seen.

Nothing turns people into opponents of open government more than getting elected to a position of power in which they then do not want to be scrutinized. Our plea is that every elected public official remembers that their days in office are numbered. One day, they will return to simply being Joe Citizen. And they will then want those in public office to operate openly. That's how government should be. That's how government must be if the public's interests have any value at all to those who temporarily govern.

The attacks on your right to know about the public's business are never ending. Please encourage any of your representatives to resist the darkness by always shedding light on government decision making.

Sunshine is good for everyone, except those who motives are not toward the public good.

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