Tom Henry



If it looks like a duck, and sounds like a duck...

Saturday, March 25, 2017

"If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we have at least to consider the possibility that we have a small aquatic bird of the family anatidae on our hands," Douglas Adams in Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency.

The problem is, Republican ducks and Democrat ducks all waddle and they all quack. There truly is no way to definitively identify the political philosophy of Arkansas legislative ducks of either party? Whether it was a "good ol' boy" democrat of the Faubus, Robinson or Clinton eras or the "new good ol' boy" republican of today, they all quack the same freedom limiting desire for back room deals and keeping the public in the dark. But not just governors and legislators...how about mayors and county judges? What about school boards and election commissions? What about police departments and economic development boards that like keeping things hush hush until their deals are finalized? What about investigatory bodies like the Arkansas State Police? Should the voters know about investigations and lawsuits involving their local officials or dare we just trust them - waiting years for answers?

From the end of political reconstruction in 1874 until Election Day 2012, Arkansas was owned and operated, controlled and manipulated, bought and paid for by the Democratic Party. That was 138 years of absolute total control by one highly organized party machine that did what they wanted with citizens kept in the dark. We have the same type machine now, equally offended when legally mandated to reveal their backroom deals, contracts, lawsuits and investigations...but now they are republican ducks.

Everyone familiar with Arkansas history knows that we have elected some real doozies in the past. A few of them wielded near dictatorial powers, but the one thing that kept Arkansas from devolving into a complete banana republic (at least during the past 50 years) was one of the strongest Freedom of Information Acts (FOIA) in the nation. Now it is the republicans, not the democrats that want to change it.

Republican Governor Winthrop Rockefeller signed the current FOIA, also known as “the people’s law”, on February 14, 1967. The legislative intent of the act at the time is best summed up in language within the act itself, "It is vital in a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner so that the electors shall be advised of the performance of public officials and of the decisions that are reached in public activity and in making public policy."

Since 1967 there have been 23 exemptions added to the Act. However, this year alone, the supermajority Republican General Assembly has filed more than 30 new bills attempting to carve out even more exemptions. This is unprecedented in state history.

A few examples include:

SB12 by Senator Gary Stubblefield (R-Branch) that would deny the public's right to know about school and university security records. SB373 by Sen. Bart Hester (R-Cave Springs) and Rep. Bob Billinger (R-Hindsville) would apply attorney-client privilege exemptions to any information requested under the act. At first glance that might not seem to be a bad thing. But if it becomes law, the press will be unable to get information related to lawsuits and investigations involving local governmental bodies and public officials.

Sen. Wallace and Rep. Johnny Rye voted "yea" and Rep. Monte Hodges voted "present" on this bill, however, it is only because of this right that the CN was able to get information related to the water department office equipment lawsuits just last month. Prior to our FOIA request, no information had been forthcoming from the city or the Arkansas State Police for about a year.

HB1622, by Sen. Jane English (R-North Little Rock) and Rep. Bob Johnson (D-Jacksonville) would lift the three-day deadline to comply with the Act if a request is "unduly burdensome." Who decides? How is it defined...particularly since most records are now digital? Also, delaying more than three days in some cases could be the difference between the public's right to know before an election and afterwards.

SB131 sponsored by Stubblefield and HB1590 sponsored by Rep. DeAnn Vaught (R-Horatio) would cut out many things, including data recorded by police dashboard or body cameras.

HB2111, sponsored by Rep. Jim Dotson (R-Bentonville) creates an exemption to all records of an investigation that is conducted when the alleged offender is an adult, but the alleged crime was committed while still a juvenile. The bill passed the house and is headed to the Senate. Rep. Hodges and Rep. Rye both voted for the bill.

Just this week an adult was arrested in Blytheville and changed with two counts of capitol murder surrounding the Cherry Tree double homicide last November, when the alleged offender was one month shy of becoming 18 years of age. This bill would disallow the discovery of information related to the investigation.

SB261 by Sen. Bart Hester (R-Cave Springs) and Rep. Andy Davis (R-Little Rock) exempts records related to pending or reasonably anticipated litigation that involved an institution of higher education. The bureaucracies known as higher education is already hard to keep accountable and oftentimes run as small fiefdoms. This would make it even more difficult to protect taxpayer monies.

HB1836 by Rep. Karilyn Brown (R-Sherwood), creates an online publication alternative for various notices and listings that a city or county is required to publish in a newspaper. Questions still remain about how informed the public (especially older non-computer savvy voters) will be when public notices are only put online rather than in traditional print media.

Some argue that the current FOIA laws are too burdensome for government officials to comply with. That's simply ridiculous. What is strange is the coordinated barrage upon our strong FOIA laws this legislative session alone and what is truly burdensome is trying to bring truth to the light when the system is rigged to keep things in the dark!

"Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost," Thomas Jefferson.