Lawmakers Consider Bills to Shed Light on Contracts, Spending

by Chuck Bartels, The Associated Press  on Wednesday, Jun. 18, 2014 5:12 pm  

State Rep. Nate Bell, R-Mena.

LITTLE ROCK - Members of a legislative panel on Wednesday looked at ways to expand Arkansas' open records law so taxpayers can find out more about spending in government contracts and possibly get access to other financial records now held in secret.

The athletic and academic foundations at the University of Arkansas are regarded as private entities and much of how they spend millions of dollars is kept from the public eye. Likewise, the Arkansas Economic Development Commission doesn't have to fully reveal details about state money paid to employers.

Rep. Jim Nickels, D-Sherwood, has drafted a bill to address problems in getting financial information from private entities that do business with state government.

Nickels, an attorney, won't be around for the regular session that starts in January because of term limits, but he said he hopes legislators that follow him will take up the issue.

Max Brantley, senior editor of the Arkansas Times, said he doesn't accept that the UA's foundations are legitimately keeping financial information from disclosure under the argument that they're private groups.

"I think it's bull," Brantley told the State Agencies Committee.

Robert Steinbuch, a professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's law school and open-records specialist, said the foundations use state employees to raise money for academics and athletics. In the case of athletics, the foundation draws revenue from premiums on tickets to games played at state-owned venues.

"The public has a right to know how the money is raised, misspent ... or spent," Steinbuch said.

Steinbuch said he believes it is common for government boards to go into closed session to discuss matters that should be aired in public.

Rep. Nate Bell, R-Mena, said he drafted a bill that would require recording of closed sessions of otherwise public meetings. The measure would have a prosecutor or his or her designate review the recording to ensure there wasn't discussion of matters that should have been held in open session.

If there's a finding that all or part of the meeting should have been conducted in public, the information would have to be "immediately disclosed" to the public, he said.

Bell said that local newspaper editors could serve as prosecutors' agents but would have to sign a confidentiality agreement. He also said he wants a judge to review any findings and that he's still trying to develop a way for the process to work.



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