Striking a Nerve with FOIA
Politicians can argue FOIA for hours at the Capitol. It's another thing to be in the crossfire of fighting for transparency. Keep scrolling to read an email from the FOIA trenches.
We went to the Capitol Tuesday, and we didn’t like what we saw.
In the packed Old Supreme Court Room, the opponents to Senate Bill 9 – the slippery slope that would gut FOIA – outnumbered the proponents of the bill.
What stood out? The state senators on the state agencies committee who heard from Arkansans and the senators’ rudeness to everyday people who have a right for their voices to be heard.
Instead, many were grilled as if they were holding state secrets.
Speaking of secrets, we are very curious why all of these FOIA bills are written to be retroactive all the way back to June 2022. Governor Sarah Sanders wasn’t even in office then. The governor was Asa Hutchinson, who is running now for president. Johnny Key was the secretary of education. Other constitutional officers have merely swapped roles inside our state government. So what’s the deal? Who is hiding what?
We were shocked to see Democratic Sen. Clarke Tucker fight just as hard against this bill as some Republicans. Republican Sen. Bryan King who lives in Green Forest discussed his own use of FOIA to root out state government corruption. But other committee members acted like bullies on a playground. Their playground by the way not ours although we are taxpayers.
Since 1967, the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act, signed into law by Republican Governor Winthrop Rockefeller — who is likely rolling over in his grave at what is happening in the state’s capitol — has long stood as a strong tool to hold government accountable. A key takeaway was Republican Blake Johnson from northeast Arkansas explaining to citizens that the bill reflects what the governor requested as if she is their queen and they are her servants. The people responded with “you represent us.” Clearly, regardless of party, citizens want government accountability and transparency.
Arkansans may regret their vote last November in light of this special session. Past governors — Democrats or Republicans — have never attempted a power grab of this nature towards its citizens.
Although new bills were filed Tuesday to focus only on Sanders’ security situation, the bills still protect documents from June 2022 to present. Sanders’ supporters claim on social media that her security detail could have possibly started in June 2022. But all of these new bills take away the records of all the cabinet positions back to June 2022.
We as Americans should remember the words of Founding Father Patrick Henry: “The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them.”
Special note: As we are currently and have been using FOIA to gather information, we know first hand how fast a custodian of records could enter keywords such as “security” to attempt to avoid releasing documents or making them exempt.
Currently, certain records are exempt from disclosure. Sensitive information in documents can be redacted. These new bills create the potential pathway for custodians of the records to avoid disclosure. We are troubled that anyone in the legislature would support a bill that would retroactively make documents exempt from public scrutiny. Seeking information under FOIA is about digging into the past for the truth.
It’s one thing to think about FOIA in theory. It’s another to be in the trenches fighting custodians of records and using FOIA to uncover facts surrounding the use of your tax dollars. See this email below that was received recently during an ongoing FOIA investigation.
We will bring you this story if the Sheridan School District releases what we have requested. That includes: materials, warranty and product information on school buildings.
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