Heroes and Zeroes: A Common Sense Look at Transparency
Technological advances should be utilized in public records keeping
Americans crave transparency while lawmakers obviously overlook simple solutions.
That’s especially true when it comes to public officials at the local level. Often the only way for citizens to know what is happening is to formerly request the record.
Under the current Arkansas Freedom of Information Act public requests can often create chaos for all parties – the requester and the entity that keeps the records.
Records must be reviewed for personal information – like certain names and Social Security numbers – that is exempt from public disclosure. Such meticulous work obviously takes time away from the day-to-day duties of the records’ custodian, which is the legal name of the person responsible for the public records.
Common sense? Who would like more efficiency and transparency in government?
The lack of transparency in public meetings remains a focus of scrutiny from Washington to your local quorum court. If you are actively attending public meetings, you will understand how so called government actions taken in public lead to records requests.
Take, for example, your local school board.
They hold monthly meetings designed to provide the public an opportunity to be informed about decisions that impact their children’s education, the future construction of buildings and how your tax dollars are spent overall. School boards even decide when to ask you to raise your property taxes through millage increases, based off the needs and wants of its members. Can you imagine the supplies a school needs daily from toilet paper to technology?
Let's focus more on a common sense solution. Look at these school board minutes.
Arkansas law requires a public entity to keep accurate minutes – the permanent record – of the meetings.
Now in the example above from the Sheridan School District, ask yourself as a citizen if you have any idea what action this school board took on any agenda item. What cost was incurred on behalf of the decisions? What specific product was purchased? What details of the services provided were given?
What would you think if I told you the school board voted to take away the public’s right to sign up at the meeting and speak to the officials they elected unless it’s already on the agenda. The public – like parents or concerned citizens, for example – cannot just show up and talk to the school board at a meeting. Administrators and board members of this district took a swing on the First Amendment rights of every citizen.
Listen to the work session prior to this school board meeting where board members discuss voting on individual policy changes that included allowing the public to sign up and speak.
Work sessions are public meetings although board members rarely discuss what happens in these meetings. Work sessions are often held in obscure locations prior to the advertised board meetings.
Arkansas’ open meeting law requires all public meetings have an audio recording available to the public.
Those audio files typically are disposed of after a period of time. In the case of the Sheridan School District’s record retention policy, audio files are kept for one year.
Now listen to the board meeting where the board voted to take away public input.
According to the work session audio above, the board agreed to vote on individual policy changes. But that didn’t happen, you can hear a board member make a motion to approve all policy changes as presented. That resulted in Jacob Palmer voting against all changes.
Last December, twenty-two-year-old Palmer was the only member to question the changes that allowed all other board members to silence the public’s right to speak. In November 2022, Palmer was elected to the school board replacing long-term board member Bryce Lunday.
South Arkansas Reckoning asked Palmer about his vote.
“I will always oppose any attempts to limit public participation and input in public meetings. I believe our local taxpayers should have more opportunities to address their elected officials, not fewer,” Palmer wrote in an email to South Arkansas Reckoning. “While my fellow board members made some good points in favor of changing the policy, I felt that it was ultimately a matter of principle.
“I would like to point out that the board still allows individuals to sign up to speak on matters that are already on the agenda. I had the board’s support in ensuring that this practice did not change, following the public input policy change.”
Are you up to speed?
None of this makes sense unless you’ve listened to the audio files and read the minutes. The facts in this article paint a picture of typical Arkansas local level government actions.
What happened to transparency? Every citizen should be concerned when a government body votes to implement a process that ultimately circumvents your constitutional right to address your government.
Clearly there is a breakdown in the system.
Why are local governments using vague methods of conducting and recording meetings? Why are local governments forcing parents and citizens to request copies of audio files to be informed?
Concerned citizens who want to know what happened in a meeting have one avenue to find out – sending in a Freedom of Information request costing more tax dollars.
If the custodian fails to respond, the only recourse for the requester is to file a lawsuit against the custodian to force disclosure through the Circuit Court.
What happened to common sense?
As lawmakers and citizens debate changes to the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act, we could hope someone brings up a common sense solution.
Look at any item listed and tell me what action was actually taken. Listen to the board meeting audio.
Are you actually informed? Without the board meeting’s companion – the work session audio – you are likely confused. We get it.
Will anyone suggest a change that makes sense?
All public meetings should be video/audio recorded and live streamed. There is no reason a public body should meet and do the public’s business in a way that generates a Freedom of Information request if a citizen only wants to review or scrutinize the actions taken by their government. It’s really not that complicated.
Public records should be ready for release as soon they are created.
Save the taxpayers a few dollars on the front end. We realize this is scary to think the government should put taxpayers interests first.
Custodians of public records should be required by law to make all public records available online and upload them to a website as they are created.
For example, many school boards have tablets for their board members. The school board agenda and documents – called a packet – are typically uploaded to the tablet. If redactions such as personal information need to occur, redact and then upload to a public website.
Older records in storage should be uploaded as they become relevant. One way to determine if they are relevant would be when a member of the public requests the documents. Upload them. Don’t waste time and money repeating a request, do it one time.
When will common sense start providing a more open, accessible, transparent and efficient system of government?
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