Nearly finished drafting proposed Freedom of Information amendment to Arkansas Constitution, supporters say

Group hears of coalition’s workto enshrine transparency law

Margo Lemaster of Engage NWA opens “Welcoming Week.” (NWA Democrat-Gazette/DOUG THOMPSON)
Margo Lemaster of Engage NWA opens “Welcoming Week.” (NWA Democrat-Gazette/DOUG THOMPSON)

FAYETTEVILLE -- The coalition drafting a proposed amendment to enshrine the state Freedom of Information Act into the state constitution expects to have a final draft within a week, supporters told the League of Women Voters of Washington County on Thursday night.

The Arkansas Citizens for Transparency group will also propose an initiated act along with the amendment, spokespeople Nate Bell of Lincoln and Jen Standerfer of Bentonville said. The league met with the two at Crisis Brewing.

"Government of, by and for the people can't work unless the people know what the government is doing," Bell said. The Freedom of Information Act ensures open access to public records and requires decision-making government bodies to meet in public, he said.

The drive to put the Freedom of Information Act into the constitution began after a special session called by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders in September. An act curtailing the state's existing Freedom of Information statute passed the session after a much more restrictive bill faced opposition from a wide spectrum of individuals, groups and lawmakers.

Putting Freedom of Information provisions in the state constitution would make it much harder for the Legislature to curtail public access to records or allow governing bodies to meet in secret, proponents say.

Splitting their proposal into an amendment and an initiated act greatly simplified the drafting of a detailed proposal, said Standerfer, an attorney who once worked for Legislative Research, which drafts bills for the Legislature. Some provisions of a workable Freedom of Information Act are too detailed to appropriately put into the constitution, she said.

"We did not have a measure that could withstand [a legal] challenge until we split them in two," Bell said.

A major, recent addition to the proposal is a provision of a government transparency commission to hear disputes over compliance with the law without requiring a citizen to take the dispute to court, Bell and Standerfer said.

The transparency group decided to split the proposal despite the added work of passing two measure instead of one, Bell said. Each measure will require petition drives to get on the November 2024 ballot. The amendment will require 90,704 signatures of registered voters on its petition. The initiated act will require a separate petition, which would require 72,563 such signatures.

The league has not adopted a position on the amendment or the initiated act and will not until and unless the measures make the ballot, Washington County league president Michelle Wolchok of Fayetteville said. But the league's mission is to empower voters and defend democracy, she said.

"The FOI brings those two things together," she said.

As a nonpartisan group, the league is also pleased to see how politically diverse the proposals backers are, she said.

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