With a state motto like Regnat Populus (The People Rule), it should come as no surprise that Arkansans are serious about government accountability. The Arkansas Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was first signed into law by Governor Winthrop Rockefeller in February 1967 following a national trend to provide public access to government records. At that time, Arkansas was experiencing a shift in power aimed at overturning more than a decade of closed-door politics under Governor Orval Faubus.
While the FOIA has been challenged in courts and amended many times, the general premise has remained the same — public business should be conducted in the public domain. Recent letters from the AG’s office have many in Pope County wondering what public business actually means. The FOIA separates that issue into two categories: public meetings and public records.
Public meetings are most defined as any meeting of elected officials that is supported by public funds or will be expending public funds. Under the FOIA, all public meetings must be held with prior public notice and in an environment that allows the public to observe their government in action. The old school of thought was that anytime two elected officials were together it was a public meeting. Following that rule of thumb could certainly minimize issues, but it would also limit officials unreasonably in social settings. It is important to remember that limiting normal personal interaction was never the intention of the law and should be avoided if we want people to continue running for local office.
The best way to determine if a meeting should be public or not would be to examine the conversation that took place. For example, if several officials were at the same Super Bowl party discussing a fantasy football league it is definitely not a public meeting at that time. Depending on where the discussion goes after football, it could become a meeting later on. If the topic veers off to include how to handle a troublesome county employee, then the social gathering may have just become a public meeting happening outside of the public domain. The courts have ruled that discussing an issue in passing does not constitute a meeting, but if the conversation progressed into deciding what action should be taken, it would likely violate the FOIA at that point. Since it’s doubtful anyone was taking minutes at the party, proving a violation occurred is even more challenging.
Public records, on the other hand, are much easier to identify. Any record in any medium that is produced by a public office or a public employee in the scope of their job is presumed to be a public record. Upon request, these records must be provided within three business days to any Arkansas citizen wishing to examine or copy them. Over the years, FOIA has been updated to include emails and texts in the public record. The law is meant to be applied broadly but certain documents are exempt from public disclosure. Generally, exclusions are only in place to protect sensitive personal or business information. Comprehensive information on the FOIA is available online at https://www.arkansaspress.org/
More than 50 years after being signed into law, the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act still stands as a leading example of government transparency. As citizens of this great state, we have a mechanism to open up the books and hold public officials accountable to their constituents. Unlike the laws that keep us safe from crime, the FOIA is only truly effective if we utilize it.l