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Citizen-initiated government transparency act proposal submitted to Arkansas Attorney General

The Arkansas Legislature wrapped up a three-day special session focused on Gov. Asa Hutchinson's tax cut proposal on Thursday.
Michael Hibblen
/
KUAR News
A proposed ballot measure would seek to strengthen Arkansas' open records laws.

From the Arkansas Advocate:

Arkansas government transparency advocates proposed a ballot measure on Monday that would define a public meeting and create a special body to help citizens denied access to public records.

Arkansas Citizens for Transparency submitted a proposed ballot title and popular name for the “Arkansas Government Transparency Act,” a companion to a proposed constitutional amendment submitted last week that would create a right to government transparency.

Attorney General Tim Griffin has until Dec. 11 to approve or reject the amendment ballot title and until Dec. 18 to approve or reject the proposed citizen-initiated act.

ACT is composed of attorneys and advocates with interests in open government. Its drafting committee unveiled two drafts for the amendment and one for the initiated act in recent weeks, seeking public feedback before submitting the language to Griffin’s office.

The Arkansas Government Transparency Act would codify a definition of a public meeting, which has long been unclear, and broaden the legal definitions of a “governing body” and “communication” among members of a governing body.

It would also mandate that records concerning the planning or provision of security services to the governor and other state elected officials be considered public and accessible under the state Freedom of Information Act after three months.

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed a law in September shielding these records from public access after a special legislative session. Sanders advocated for several more exemptions to the FOIA that met bipartisan pushback and did not advance in the Legislature.

The proposed act would create stiffer civil penalties for violating the FOIA and protect citizens’ right to appeal FOIA decisions to circuit court and collect attorneys’ fees if they win their case. The act would also create the Arkansas Government Transparency Commission to help citizens enforce their right to obtain public records and observe public meetings.

The drafters told an audience last month that their goals of creating enforceable government transparency policy required detailed changes to the FOIA, while a constitutional amendment would declare the principle of transparency and make it a basic right.

The Arkansas Government Transparency Amendment would prohibit “the General Assembly from amending a law or enacting law to diminish public access to government.” Such laws could only be enacted if a two-thirds majority of the General Assembly refers them to the next general election ballot and Arkansas voters approve them.

In emergencies, the amendment would allow the General Assembly to immediately enact a law diminishing public access to government with a 90% vote, but such a measure would still go before the people at the next general election.

The draft amendment defines “diminishes public access to government” as “making a public process, public meeting, public notice, or public record less transparent or modifying the legal standard for or limiting the recovery of penalties, fees, expenses, or costs.”

The amendment would also allow the state of Arkansas to be sued in state court for failing to comply with state transparency laws.

ACT formed a ballot question committee in order to start raising money for its campaign to put both proposals on the ballot, according to documents filed Friday with the Arkansas Ethics Commission. A ballot question committee is any person or group that receives financial contributions with the goal of supporting or opposing a ballot initiative.

The eight-member committee includes two of the seven drafters of the proposed amendment and act: Nate Bell, a former independent state representative, and David Couch, an attorney known for working on ballot initiatives.

The committee also includes:

  • Davy Carter, former Republican state legislator from Lonoke and Speaker of the House
  • Keith Ingram, former Democratic state legislator from West Memphis and Senate Minority Leader
  • Bruce Maloch, former Democratic state legislator from Magnolia
  • Joyce Elliott, former Democratic state legislator from Little Rock
  • Kathrine Bischof, chairwoman of the Greene County Republican Committee
  • Jimmie Cavin, First Amendment advocate from Conway

With Griffin’s approval, ACT may begin canvassing the state for signatures on each proposed measure. By July 5, 90,704 registered voters must sign petitions for proposed constitutional amendments to qualify for the November ballot. Initiated acts require 72,563 signatures.

Tess Vrbin is a reporter with the nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization Arkansas Advocate. It is part of the States Newsroom which is supported by grants and a coalition of readers and donors.