Shedding Light on FOIA: Celebrating Sunshine Week and Promoting Transparency

by Dr. Joyce O. Ajayi, ACRE Policy Analyst

This week is Sunshine Week, and I couldn’t be more excited! For those unfamiliar with it, Sunshine Week is an annual event across the country that celebrates government transparency and encourages the public to participate in the democratic process.

One of the things I am most excited about for Sunshine Week this year is three new bills in Arkansas that touch on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) have recently been introduced to the Arkansas Legislature. Three of those bills present an opportunity to enhance the legislation surrounding FOIA. The first is Senate Bill 380, requiring records custodians to respond in writing within three days of the FOIA request in certain circumstances, like when no records that are responsive to the request exist. The second bill is Senate Bill 381, requiring regular training of local governments like cities, counties, and school boards on public records and open meetings requirements of the FOIA. The third and most exciting is Senate Bill 382, defining what constitutes a meeting of a public body or publicly-funded entity. These three bills were all heard in Senate committee this week with extensive testimony, though only SB 381 has passed so far (the other two were not voted on).

However, a fourth recent bill, House Bill 1610, would define a meeting as a public meeting only when a quorum of the public body is present, going the opposite direction of SB 382. Depending on how it is interpreted, House Bill 1610 may be bad for transparency. Though the law more clearly defines a public meeting, it may allow for secrecy. For example, given a scenario where school board members met secretly without a quorum, they may propose to have it be off the record since it is not within the ambit of that definition of a public meeting because there was no quorum.

Over the past few months, some remarkable occurrences came to light, suggesting that our local governments needed more clarity on laws regarding public meetings. On November 21, 2022, the Little Rock School District’s board disregarded the public meetings law by holding a secret meeting. Also, in November 2022, Conway School District refused a resident attendance at a meeting that had been previously published as a public meeting in the media. Conway School District further deleted emails about school business within three days. In another event, the Eighth Circuit Court on December 30 2022, ruled that Washington County’s Job Evaluation/Salary Administration Program Committee is a public body and its meetings should be made public. All of those occurrences raised concerns about an open and accountable government, thus providing lawmakers a chance to clarify the desired features of transparency in public meetings.

The current law on Arkansas’ open public meeting law describes a public meeting as “all meetings, formal or informal, special or regular, of the governing bodies of all municipalities, counties, townships, and school districts and all boards, bureaus, commissions, or organizations of the State of Arkansas, except grand juries, supported wholly or in part by public funds or expending public funds.” (AR Code § 25-19-106). That law created some ambiguity in its interpretation for most public entities on what really constitutes a public meeting, but it is interesting to see the Legislature making attempts to provide a proper definition because public meetings are an essential aspect of democratic governance. Public meetings provide an opportunity for residents to stay informed, have their voices heard, and engage with their government in a meaningful way. By promoting transparency, accountability, and community engagement, public meetings help ensure that government decisions are made with the people’s best interests in mind.

If you are someone who values transparency and accountability and are always looking for ways to stay informed about what is happening in your local, state, and federal government, Sunshine Week provides the perfect opportunity to do just that. ACRE offers a number of resources on government transparency on our website, and our 2023 county and city web transparency report will be available this Spring. Happy Sunshine week!

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