One Arkansas newspaper publisher says the press and public openness advocates dodged a bullet in the recent legislative session; another says it was more like evading the “Star Wars” Death Star.
Whatever analogy you like, journalists and citizens who prize government transparency were relieved by the failure of bills that took aim at Arkansas’ strong Freedom of Information Act and current law that requires public notices to be published in newspapers.
Late last month, House Bill 1726 by Republican Rep. David Ray of Maumelle, which would have weakened the FOIA, failed in a 9-4 House committee vote. About the same time, House Bill 1616, which would have allowed state, county and municipal governments to publish public notices online rather than in newspapers, met a similar fate even though it had been amended in a compromise with the Arkansas Press Association.
“The Association of Arkansas Counties and the Municipal League appear determined to keep legal notices out of public view by putting them on some obscure website,” said Andrew Bagley, publisher of the Helena World and the Monroe County Argus. “And it’s unfortunate that they were lobbying so hard against taxpayer interests. It’s almost like they are the Death Star and newspapers are the planet Alderaan.” That was a reference to the peaceful world obliterated long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away.
Bagley said public notices provide about 15% of the Helena World’s revenue, and that while losing those ads wouldn’t necessarily be a death blow, “it could mean somebody losing a job.”
Madison County Record Publisher Ellen Kreth said the state’s 56-year-old FOI law didn’t escape completely unscathed, but that it “dodged a bullet” in HB1726, which would have exempted many government records from public review. She praised ordinary Arkansans who waited hours to testify, turning the tide against the bill. Ray, its sponsor, said the legislation would improve the FOIA and stop its “weaponization” by disgruntled folks making unreasonable requests and wasting government time and money.
“I testified against the bill, and there were a few others with the press or the Press Association, but when they announced 28 people were at the committee meeting to speak against the bill, I was surprised,” said Kreth, a veteran reporter who now runs the family newspaper in Huntsville. She said ordinary Arkansans convinced committee members that the FOIA is for the people, not just the press. And in many cases, the press is representing the people through FOIA requests.
Kreth’s paper won the 2021 Taylor Family Award for Fairness from the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard after using Freedom of Information requests to piece together a series on attempts by the Huntsville School District to cover up sexual abuse allegations by junior high basketball players who were bullied, held down and subjected to “baptism rituals” involving bodily parts.
The Record pursued the story after local parents approached it, desperate for the truth. The school district, Kreth said, had not only covered up the assaults, but also its own failure to report them as required by law. “This bill would have protected their behavior, kept secret from the parents the district’s attempts to cover up their malfeasance and failure to report the abuse,” Kreth said in her testimony to the House Committee on State Agencies & Governmental Affairs.
“I think the bill was way too long, was presented at the very end of the session, and would have absolutely gutted the FOIA. And private citizens came out to say we are against this; we want open government,” Kreth told Arkansas Business. “The FOIA was written by Gov. [Winthrop] Rockefeller and passed in 1967 for the people. And all of the people who testified for the bill were government employees or, in the case of the volunteer firefighters, government volunteers. The committee realized that ordinary citizens really believe in access to government information.”
Ashley Wimberley, executive director of the Arkansas Press Association, said that the FOIA overhaul and the idea of keeping public notices out of newspapers made for a hellish session for openness advocates. “Usually when we look at transparency there is a bit of a difference between public notice and FOIA bills,” she said, though both have faced serious scrutiny in previous sessions. She said “house ads” in many member newspapers, and notably a fox-and-henhouse motif in full-page ads in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, made ordinary readers take notice and call their lawmakers. “These are just people who value transparency and wanted to become involved. We saw a lot of ordinary Arkansans in committee rooms testifying. So I’ll say this is no doubt the hardest session we’ve ever had, but at the same time, it was also the most successful.”
Other states have passed legislation shifting legal notices onto the web, Wimberley noted, and she was open to a compromise with the Municipal League and Association of Arkansas Counties, but she agreed with Bagley and Kreth that newspapers are the best outlets for putting notices before the public.
“Part of a public notice being in newspapers is that readers run across them when they’re looking at stories on Friday night’s football game, an obituary or whatever you’re looking at, and you just happen to see a public notice that your trash pickup is increasing.”
She added that the Press Association already has a website that collects public notices from all its member newspapers, arkansaspublicnotices.com. “And there’s no charge for the state” or for local governments.
Wimberley and Bagley, the east Arkansas publisher, also said that with broadband access still a problem, online public notices are of little use to many rural Arkansans. “Having them in the newspaper is essential, particularly in the rural communities that I serve,” Bagley said. “And obviously, from a revenue perspective, they’re very important to smaller newspapers where the advertising base has shrunk.”
He said only a small fraction of city and county revenue is spent on public notices, but he expects to see similar bills arise in future sessions. He cited Rep. Mary Bentley, R-Perryville, who submitted a separate bill to soften the FOIA this session. “She was quoted in committee saying that God told her to do this,” Bagley said. “Well, the Holy Spirit has led me to feel like maybe she misunderstood the Almighty’s message. I don’t think the Bible says we should do our business in darkness.”