COMMENTARY: Anti-transparency measure withers in Ark. Senate committee

By SONNY ALBARADO | Arkansas Advocate

First, the good news: Rep. Mary Bentley’s bill narrowing what counts as a public meeting failed on a voice vote in a Senate committee Tuesday. That effectively kills it for this session. I hope.

Thanks to the government transparency debate her legislation sparked, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the ambiguity in the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act when it comes to what qualifies as a meeting of a public body.

The FOIA today lacks a clear definition. Section 25-19-106 of the law says only this: “… all meetings, formal or informal, special or regular,” by governing bodies that use public funds or spend them “shall be public meetings.”

Republican Rep. Mary Bentley of Perryville (left) failed to pass her open meetings legislation through a Senate committee on Tuesday, April 4, 2023. She’s seen here with Rep. Rick Beck, R-Center Ridge, at a March committee meeting. | Antoinette Grajeda/Arkansas Advocate

Under the statute, they have to post notice of their meetings. That way, members of the public can observe the spending of their tax dollars and the decision-making being done on their behalf. 

That section prescribes when governing bodies can hold discussions behind closed doors but is silent on what constitutes a meeting.

Several state Supreme Court rulings and a long list of opinions from attorneys general have clarified specific questions surrounding meetings.

I’m comfortable with that state of affairs. But if lawmakers want to codify what “meeting” means, perhaps they should look to those rulings and attorney general’s opinions. Sen. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, suggested just that to Sen. John Payton, R-Wilburn, the Senate sponsor of Bentley’s House Bill 1610.

The FOIA is often referred to as the “People’s Law,” and testimony against HB 1610 Tuesday showed why.

Payton said the way to address the problem of “bad actors” who abuse the open meetings law is to “unelect them.”

“The ballot box is the cure, not a gag order to keep [public officials] from communicating with each other,” he said.

Courtney Roldan of Cabot said she and some other parents tried to do just that by running, unsuccessfully, for the local school board because of the way the board conducts its meetings. The school board requires citizens who want to address it to register three days before a meeting, but the agenda isn’t released until the day before the meeting, Roldan said.

“Therefore, you don’t get to speak on anything on the agenda,” she said. “Half the time, we don’t know what’s going on.”

“If this bill passes, it is going to be a huge loss for parents who just want to be part of the discussion of what’s going on in their schools,” Roldan said.

Lonoke resident Mariah Cobb told the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee that Bentley’s frequent comparisons of county governing bodies to the Legislature were like “comparing apples and avocados.”

“Everything she’s saying she wants to address, they can already do. They just can’t lobby one another to endorse decisions funded by our tax dollars,” Cobb said. “How are we supposed to measure the effectiveness of our [public officials] if we can’t see why they’re for or against something?

“This bill is only going to make things worse,” she said.