Attorney general signs off on language for proposed constitutional amendment to strengthen Arkansas’ Freedom of Information Act

Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin is shown in this Aug. 8, 2023 file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)
Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin is shown in this Aug. 8, 2023 file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin on Wednesday signed off on wording for a proposed constitutional amendment to strengthen the state's Freedom of Information Act.

Griffin's certification of the ballot title and popular name for the proposed amendment clears the way for Arkansas Citizens for Transparency, the group behind the effort, to begin collecting signatures to get its proposal on the November ballot.

The go-ahead from the attorney general's office is the first hurdle cleared for the group, which has proposed both a constitutional amendment and an initiated act to protect the state's sunshine law. The attorney general's office is set to issue an opinion on the group's proposed initiated act Thursday, according to a spokesman for Griffin.

While Griffin certified the ballot language for the proposed amendment, representatives from Arkansas Citizens for Transparency said they will wait until after Griffin issues his ruling on their initiated act before deciding how to proceed with its signature collecting effort.

"We're certainly moving with signature collection on something in the very near future," said Nate Bell, chair of Arkansas Citizens for Transparency. "It's a matter of, you know, making sure we have the totality of the situation in hand."

The proposed amendment would establish government transparency as a right for Arkansas citizens. It also would make it more difficult for the state legislature to change the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act, requiring a two-thirds majority in both chambers that would not take effect until after final approval from voters through a statewide referendum. Immediate changes to the Freedom of Information Act would require a nine-tenths vote in the General Assembly that could be overturned by a statewide referendum under the amendment.

Under Arkansas law, the attorney general has the authority to certify, reject or rewrite ballot language for a constitutional amendment or initiated act before a petition effort can begin. When certifying ballot language for the amendment, Griffin made slight changes to the language.

For the amendment to make the November ballot, the group will need to collect at least 90,704 signatures by July 5, and they must come from at least 50 different counties in Arkansas.

The decision comes a day after Arkansas Citizens for Transparency filed a lawsuit against Griffin asking the Arkansas Supreme Court to compel the Republican attorney general to certify or rewrite ballot language for the group's proposed amendment.

Griffin had rejected two prior versions of the amendment, saying the group needed to clarify certain aspects of its proposal. Those suggestions frustrated members of Arkansas Citizens for Transparency, who reluctantly made alterations to their amendment and prompted the lawsuit accusing the attorney general of "a complete lack of understanding of his role," or that "he is intentionally thwarting the effort of the petitioner."

Griffin's office took issue with a previous version of the amendment that would have limited the General Assembly ability to amend the Freedom of Information Act, but only if it would "diminish public access to government." The group changed its amendment to limit the legislature's ability to making any "law concerning government transparency" to get the attorney general's approval.

David Couch, treasurer of Arkansas Citizens for Transparency, said the version Griffin approved was "adequate" but said the group will continue its lawsuit against the attorney general. However, later Wednesday, Bell and Ashley Wimberley said the group will hold off on any decisions until Thursday.

"The concerns that we laid out in the complaint continue to exist, specifically our concern about being forced to modify our text," Couch said. "But, you know, obviously we have to weigh the merits of whether that's worth investing time and money in going forward."

The proposed initiated act -- a law proposed by citizens -- has more specific changes to state laws regarding the Freedom of Information Act that include the creation of a state commission to assist citizens with their records requests, set a long-sought definition for a public meeting and gives courts the authority to issue civil penalties against government bodies that don't comply with a records request.

A renewed interest in the state's Freedom of Information Act began after September's special legislative session, when Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders proposed overhauling the state's sunshine law. Sanders said the law needed to be amended to better protect records related to her security and make government more efficient.

But after bipartisan pushback to two proposals to overhaul the Freedom of Information Act, lawmakers settled on a scaled down bill that exempted only records related to the governor's and other constitutional officers' security.