The ongoing revision of Rep. Mary Bentley's once-defeated House Bill 1610, which caters to protecting special interests over the people's right to fully understand how their government functions, exemplifies a Legislature whose actions this session show me how hostile some members are toward preserving government transparency.
Fort Smith Attorney Joey McCutchen said Bentley has said that "members of governing bodies should meet and discuss issues affecting their constituents as much as they desire, as long as they do so in a public and open manner." Who, I wonder in the name of selfless public service, could be against that?
"This needless revision is dark and dangerous," added McCutchen.
Feels to me like Bentley and other legislators are doing their darnedest to kill our Freedom of Information Act.
HB1610 reportedly will be revised and reintroduced Monday, according to Bentley. Becoming a law would effectively kill what historically has been widely considered the nation's strongest open-meetings law.
McCutchen over recent years has filed--and won--numerous FOIA lawsuits against members of Arkansas public bodies caught scheming their ways around open-meetings provisions.
Bentley, for reasons of her own, seems determined to limit citizens' rights to understand how and why our state's leaders make the decisions that control their lives.
Her proposed bill would allow anything less than a quorum of a public body to meet outside public view (including email or text) to discuss, deliberate or decide public business without notifying the media.
To me, this means she'd rather cater to special interests (who prefer to meet outside public view) than to champion her constituents' right to know.
"Changing the number who can meet legally to a quorum or even one-third of a governing body means most if not all, through meeting serially, will be allowed to discuss their thoughts and decisions (meaning votes) on issues in private, including phone calls, emails or texts, before formally gathering in a quorum to vote in public," said McCutchen.
"So two or three members of a seven-member board could legally meet in secret, who could then meet with three others and, in effect, hold a serial secret discussion and effectively a meeting of the board before it formally convenes.
"That would defeat the purpose of existing open-meetings provisions, ... unnecessarily and effectively ending transparent understanding of why votes were cast as they were.
"The public is entitled to see the sausage-making, no matter how unsettling it may be, and to know why members vote as they do. How could elector citizens learn and fully report the activities of their public officials under such a law since HB1610 would allow public officials to hold secret meetings on private email groups, text messages and behind closed doors?" McCutchen wondered.
He said there are major points that need to be addressed before our lawmakers vote on the most radical dismembering in the history of our transparency law.
That means there should be an interim study where all the questions and issues over what defines a meeting can be vetted by FOIA experts.
The state's FOIA Task Force did not vote on the bill's suitability last week since Bentley said she was amending it.
Amending HB1610 it to legally allow one-third of a governing body rather than a specific number to meet privately contrasts sharply with the findings at the most recent FOIA Task Force where members voted in favor of proposing Sen. Alan Clark's SB382, which stated that two or more members of a governing body can't discuss, deliberate or decide public business without notifying the media. But that bill didn't get a motion in the Senate.
Some task force members also agreed more FOIA education and training by public officials was important. But the Arkansas Senate last voted down Clark's SB381, which would have required one whole hour annually of FOIA training. Why, in the name of good government for the citizens of our state, would they do that?
And finally, Clark's SB380, which died in committee, would have required the custodians of public records to respond in writing to FOIA requests if no responsive records exist or an exemption applies.
Task force members asked Bentley if she would take her bill off the table where it could be studied and experts contribute to arrive at the best bill possible.
Bentley declined, instead saying she would run her bill Monday without task force review if she had it amended and prepared, McCutchen said.
"This bill is so important. As the 1967 legislative intent says, 'it is vital to a democratic society that public business be conducted in an open and public manner,'" McCutchen said. "This bill needs to be pulled, run through an interim study, and not rammed through the Legislature in a such haphazard fashion."
Preach it, counselor, and amen.
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at [email protected]