Apr 23, 2024 - News

Arkansas group pushes for constitutional right to transparency

Illustration of an eye inside of a megaphone.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

Transparency advocates are circulating petitions to get two measures on the November ballot to strengthen the state's sunshine laws.

Why it matters: Arkansas' Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) protects the public's right to access many government documents. Journalists, interest groups and citizens frequently use it to hold officials accountable.

Context: As part of an extraordinary legislative session last year, Arkansas lawmakers proposed changes to the state's FOI law, at the request of Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, that would have reduced which documents people could obtain.

  • After much pushback from both parties, legislators narrowed the proposals to limit access to documents related to the security detail of the governor and constitutional officers.
  • The group Arkansas Citizens for Transparency formed in response to the law's enactment to codify transparency as a right in the state's constitution.

State of play: Attorney General Tim Griffin approved language for five FOI initiatives, but advocates are only collecting signatures for two of them, lawyer David Couch of Little Rock tells Axios.

The Arkansas Government Disclosure Amendment
would:

  • Give Arkansas citizens a constitutional right to government transparency, much like the right to bear arms or to free speech.
  • Any law passed by the state General Assembly relating to government transparency would require a two-thirds vote by lawmakers and would automatically be referred to voters in the next general election.
  • Allow citizens to sue the state and recover damages and attorney fees if the government fails to comply with the amendment.

The Arkansas Government Disclosure Act would:

  • Require public meetings to be conducted so that the public can hear the governing body's discussion and require public notice of meetings.
  • Repeal the portion of the law allowing school board directors, superintendents and lawyers to meet regarding litigation, settlements, contract disputes and real property outside of public view.
  • Make most planning and security services of the governor and other constitutional officers public after three months, partially reversing a law passed last year that shields those documents.

The act also would establish the Arkansas Government Transparency Commission, made up of five members appointed by lawmakers.

  • The group would act much like the state's Ethics Commission, Couch said.
  • They would be responsible for making sure all government agencies are trained on FOI laws.
  • They would also serve as an enforcement arm to hold agencies accountable and to mediate on the behalf of the state if citizens submit excessive requests.

What to know: Arkansas Citizens for Transparency publishes an interactive map of petition hubs and signing locations.

  • Generally, volunteer petitioners can be found at large public gatherings and events like weekend farmers markets.

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