LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Government secrecy was a big winner in Arkansas during 2017, but not by a shutout. Lawmakers granted wide-ranging secrecy to schools, universities and the state Capitol police, and as the end of the year approached the Legislature wouldn’t talk about a past harassment complaint involving a legislator. The University of Arkansas also has yet to release information about a final payoff to a fired football coach.
Open records advocates say the 50th anniversary for Arkansas’ Freedom of Information Act could have been worse.
“It was under siege during the legislative session, when it appeared there would be some substantial changes that would undermine the law — some of that did transpire,” said Tom Larimer, the executive director of the Arkansas Press Association and leader of the state’s Freedom of Information Coalition. “It could have been worse than it was — but it was certainly detrimental.”
In the name of safety, legislators said public schools and universities no longer must disclose information about their security forces. Members of the public — including a student’s parents — have no guaranteed right to information to help them consider whether the school’s security team is appropriate for its size. Would two officers be enough for a 1,000-student school district? Would 40 officers be too many for a 400-student district? There’s no right to know now.
Capitol police also don’t have to reveal any details about its officers — their pay, gender or race. While closing what was perceived about a loophole that might let building security plans shake loose, legislators put all security information under wraps. State Sen. Gary Stubblefield said society had “disintegrated,” making the law necessary.
At committee meetings where the bills came up this year, legislators shared copies of a 1998 newspaper story about plans to give then-Gov. Mike Huckabee an escape route from his office through a dumbwaiter shaft. The portly governor had found no way to avoid a mob of protesters in wheelchairs outside his office, prompting tunnel talk. When the hubbub (and laughter) died down, the state completed the tunnel in 2001 and the governor’s staff later showed it off to some reporters.
The current office-holder, Gov. Asa Hutchinson perceived this year’s remedy as too broad, his spokesman said, but allowed it to become law without a signature. His office said Hutchinson has never had to use the dumbwaiter shaft to leave his office.
Among victories for public access, legislators killed an effort to let government agencies declare some FOI requests “unduly burdensome” and remove a 72-hour compliance deadline, and courts said Arkansas prison officials had to produce packaging information that would identify the manufacturer of drugs used during executions — two years after The Associated Press had obtained redacted copies under the FOI act and identified previous drug makers.
“All things considered, we came out as well as we could have. We managed to preserve a lot of the act,” said John Tull, a member of a new state FOI task force and a lawyer who has represented the AP in court.
It remains to be seen how much information will emerge about a harassment complaint against an Arkansas legislator and about how much is owed to former University of Arkansas football coach Bret Bielema, who was fired in November.
This month, the speaker of the Arkansas House declined to talk about a complaint filed within the past nine years. The Associated Press had filed an FOI request seeking any records of sexual harassment or misconduct filed against lawmakers since 2008. The attorney general’s office noted there was one record that fit the description, but what was described as a witness statement would be exempt from disclosure because it didn’t involve anyone being suspended for fired.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette newspaper reported Bielema would be owed $5.9 million after his Nov. 24 firing, but ESPN reported later that he would receive $11.8 million in a “negotiated buyout.” Would the simplest answer be having a public entity release information about a public figure?
Kissel has covered Arkansas news, politics and sports since 1994. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/kisselAP