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Power to the People (Lance Turner Editor’s Note)

2 min read

A month ago, after a brutal special legislative session for the state’s Freedom of Information Act, I wrote that we’d soon see an effort by supporters of Arkansas’ model open records law to enshrine that law into the Arkansas Constitution.

Last week, that group, Arkansas Citizens for Transparency, released a draft of a constitutional amendment to do that very thing. And it looks like a winner.

If approved by voters in its current form, the Arkansas Government Transparency Act would roll back the state’s open records law to how it existed on Sept. 1, before the governor and her legislative allies set about weakening the law in a chaotic, four-day session last month.

That means it would repeal that extraordinary session’s Act 7, which purports to protect the personal safety of Arkansas’ constitutional officers — but also happens to keep secret a host of travel details for the governor, including the names of people who travel with her aboard state aircraft.

It would also repeal Act 883 of 2023, which legislators quickly approved in the waning days of this year’s regular legislative session. A provision of Act 883, unseen by many of the legislators who voted for it, allows school boards to meet behind closed doors on some matters that were previously subject to the FOIA.

The proposal would also:

► Empower the Legislature to make public processes, meetings and records more transparent to the people by normal legislative process, which includes majority votes of the state House and Senate;

► Require voter approval — that is, putting the changes on the ballot for a vote during the general election — when lawmakers want to make public processes, meetings and records less transparent;

► Finally define what constitutes a public meeting, something missing from the current FOIA; and

► Enact a reasonable provision to exempt from the FOIA for a limited period records covering security planning and services for state constitutional officers and their minor children.

In short, there’s lots to like in this proposal, not the least of which is that it, in all but the rarest of instances, puts the power to limit transparency in government directly in the hands of the people, and not the politicians and government entities who are subject to it.

But most importantly, it sets as its north star an attitude that has so often been turned on its head by government actors: that provisions requiring the disclosure of public records and the openness of public meetings be liberally construed, and that any exemption to the same be narrowly construed.

An attitude of openness and power to the people. I like the sound of that.

Lance Turner is the editor of Arkansas Business.
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