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In Praise of Open Government (Editorial)

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A handful of bills — three good, one very bad — concerning Arkansas’ Freedom of Information Act, one of the strongest in the nation, have been proposed in the current legislative session, and we’re relieved to report that the very bad one appears to be dead. For now.

Of the three good proposals, only one appears likely to be considered by the full Legislature, but we live in the real world and take what we can get.

Rep. Mary Bentley, R-Perryville, proposed the very bad bill, House Bill 1610, which would have amended the FOI Act to redefine public meetings as meetings of a “quorum” of a governing body of local and state government entities. It would have made it easier for elected officials to meet in private, outside of public view.

Fortunately, a House committee last week rejected the bill. “We’re entitled to see the sausage-making,” Joey McCutchen, a Fort Smith lawyer, said. We agree.

McCutchen said, “If they [elected officials] come in and they’ve already made their decision, there’s no discussion, the hard discussions had been done at McDonald’s or on secret email chains, the public body is going to take the backlash.”

Meanwhile, three bills by Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, sought to strengthen the FOI Act. The most important of these would have explicitly defined a public meeting as the convening of two or more “members of a governing body of a public entity for which a quorum is required to make a decision, discuss public business, or deliberate toward a decision on any matter.”

That bill and another proposal — it would have required custodians of records to respond in writing within three working days to a written request for public records under certain circumstances — died in committee. But another Clark effort, requiring members of the governing body of each city, county and school board to attend an annual training session on the FOI Act, cleared the committee.

We’re grateful to Clark for his efforts on behalf of open government. And the public should be as well.

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