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OPINION

Sunshine Week Brings Needed Enlightenment

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This is Sunshine Week, an observance led by journalists but not FOR journalists. It’s for you and your right to know important information about how the government operates. We go to battle for open government on your behalf, because it’s our job to gather information from government sources and if we can’t get it, we can’t present it to you.

It’s difficult to relate to this broad concept, so let’s imagine what local residents might face in the absence of the Freedom of Information Act and other measures to ensure open government.

What if ...

• The county decides to build a jail but the general public doesn’t know exactly what the plan is, much less the budget.

• The city closes the public swimming pool but you don’t know why. You might hear that there was a leak, but you don’t know for sure, or if there are plans to repair it.

• Students in the school district bring home notes asking parents to support a millage increase to expand schools facilities, but gives little information about what the facilities are or why they are needed.

One solution might be to just go to a public meeting and find out!

But What If ...

• You attend a meeting but the topic you want to know about doesn’t come up. The meeting adjourns without the governing body taking any public input. Officials exit the room from a back door. You linger outside hoping to get answers but they don’t come out in the 30 minutes you are willing to wait.

• You want to attend a meeting but are told there is no set schedule. You ask to be notified of when a meeting is but are told there is no way the busy secretary would have time to do that.

• You plan to attend a scheduled meeting and stop at a local restaurant to eat first. While there, six people come out of the private room and exit the building. You get to the designated meeting spot and find those same six people gathered at the conference table ready to conduct business. They speed through the agenda items – some of which seem like complicated issues worthy of lengthy discussion – and they vote with no discussion.

Believe us, these examples are not far-fetched (and we haven’t even discussed the many opportunities for croneyism, hidden agendas, undisclosed financial relationships and more at the state level), but current state law prohibits each one of them. The Arkansas Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), established in 1967, requires public meetings for anyone conducting the public’s business, and that records maintained by public agencies be available to the public.

The state’s FOIA is generally considered one of the strongest and best models for open government in the entire country.

More than five decades later, however, the FOIA is constantly under attack by state legislators who want to whittle away at its requirements. Some do this for their own less-than-honorable reasons, and all are spurred on by the Arkansas Municipal League and Association of Arkansas Counties, groups that lobby on behalf of city and county governments across the state. They make arguments that some FOIA requirements are too costly, or too burdensome. The real issue in many cases is that local officials don’t want to be held accountable.

Assuring public access to the public’s business is easily justified and too important for us to become lax about protecting it.

LET THE SUNSHINE IN!

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