Region & State

Arkansas officials’ security records shielded from public under altered FOIA law

Governor Sarah Sanders signs a slew of bills passed during the special legislative session held this week in Little Rock. Sanders signed an FOI bill and a vaccine mandate bill among others. Sponsoring legislators are arrayed behind the governor during a media event at the state capitol Thursday morning. | John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed a law altering the state’s Freedom of Information Act, one of her stated goals of the special legislative session she called for

By TESS VRBIN | Arkansas Advocate

Senate Bill 10, which passed the Senate on Wednesday and the House on Thursday, shields from public access all records and communications concerning the planning or provision of security services to the governor and other state elected officials. The law went into effect immediately due to its emergency clause.

Sanders said she thought the four-day special session, which lasted a day longer than originally planned, was “very successful.” Senate President Pro Tempore Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, and House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, echoed this sentiment at a press conference before Sanders signed Senate Bill 10 and several other new laws.

Two earlier versions of the FOIA legislation, supported by Sanders and sponsored by Republican lawmakers, would have added several more exemptions to the state’s public records law but met resistance from the public and other lawmakers.

When asked if she would support future legislation to add the FOIA exemptions that did not advance this week, Sanders said she was pleased with Senate Bill 10 because the security aspect of the legislation was the “number-one priority.”

“We’re not going to stop continuing to fight for more government efficiency and effectiveness, and I think this is just the beginning of that process,” Sanders said.

The original legislation, filed Friday, had 40 House sponsors and 18 in the Senate but did not have enough support to advance in either chamber on Monday. The House has 100 members, the Senate 35.

In response to reporters’ questions, Sanders said she didn’t think she failed to communicate the substance of the legislation to lawmakers or misjudged the amount of support for the FOIA as it was.

“I think you [should] always go as big as you can and look for those changes that you know will make governing more effective and more efficient,” Sanders said.

Sanders said she appreciated that Senate Bill 10 passed both chambers with bipartisan support.

The only Democrats to vote for the legislation were Sen. Clarke Tucker of Little Rock and Rep. Mark Perry of Jacksonville.

Availability of documents

Progressive and conservative political voices, as well as nonpartisan First Amendment advocates, said the first two versions of the FOIA legislation would have denied Arkansans the right to access information about government officials’ conduct.

Some transparency advocates, including the Arkansas Press Association and Arkansas Broadcast Association, welcomed the narrowed-down Senate Bill 10 and its companion bill, House Bill 1012, when they were filed Tuesday night.

Others said they appreciated the removal of the other proposed exemptions but still believed the legislation was too broad.

State Police Director Col. Mike Hagar told legislative committees on Tuesday and Wednesday that Sanders needs more security and protection than previous governors because she is “a polarizing figure” and because she has three young children.

Hagar argued that access to State Police records could reveal patterns and protocols that bad actors could exploit.

Sanders called the special session three days after Little Rock attorney and blogger Matt Campbell of the Blue Hog Report filed a lawsuit over unanswered FOIA requests for ASP communications related to security for Sanders and her husband, Bryan Sanders, as well as documents reflecting ASP security costs for the Sanderses. Campbell has recently been scrutinizing and reporting Sanders’ use of the plane for in-state travel.

Rep. David Ray, R-Maumelle, mentioned the lawsuit on the House floor Thursday while encouraging his colleagues to vote for Senate Bill 10 and House Bill 1012, both of which he sponsored.

Rep. Andrew Collins, D-Little Rock, said he agreed with Hagar that certain State Police documents such as security plans should be exempt from the FOIA. However, he said he opposed the legislation because it also exempted documents, such as receipts and reimbursements, that would not risk the safety of the governor and first family.

“Unless there’s a good reason given, they should, in my opinion, remain disclosable under the FOIA,” Collins said.

The legislation could have been written with specific language differentiating between documents that would risk the governor’s safety and those that would not, he said.

Hester, another sponsor of the legislation, said in response to questions at the press conference that the Legislature still has access to state agencies’ financial documents.

“Know that your elected officials, Democrat and Republican, will be able to see those through our audit process,” Hester said.