Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Information wants to be free: The legislative edition

Posted By on Wed, Jun 18, 2014 at 1:43 PM

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I felt a little like Admiral Stockdale this morning (why am I here?), joining state Rep. Jim Nickels  for a discussion before a legislative committee about the Freedom of Information Act. There on the panel with me, in a Twitpix from Rep. Duncan Baird, are (from leftg) UALR law prof Rob Steinbuch, former legislator Dan Greenberg and Nickels.

Nickels is leaving the legislature thanks to term limits. He'll be missed. But he wanted to leave the committee with some ideas about legislation to improve the freedom of information law, particularly a way to get into the specifics of expenditures when government outsources work to private contractors. Nickels and I also share an objection to local governments subsidizing chambers of commerce with money spent under the guise of economic development service contracts. That money subsidizes the salary of paid chamber employees who lobby the legislature on all sorts of corporate political agenda items.

Rep. Andrea Lea, who chaired the joint State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee, has some FOI credits on her record and encouraged the discussion. And I had Republican allies when I got to ride some of my FOI hobby horses — the lack of accountability for private foundations intertwined with public institutions (UA, Razorback AEDC, etc.); the insufficiency of accountability on no-bid contracts (Nate Bell and I, together at last); Greenberg's vigorous support of Rep. John Walker's bill to prohibit prosecution of people who do public reporting (such as take cell phone photos of cops beating the tar out of someone).

I lent a word of support to the Republican Party lawsuit seeking to widen Arkansas's too-broad interpretation of governor working papers. Wish they'd been with me back when I was making similar arguments about Bro. Huckabee. I sympathized, too, with Rep. Mark Lowery, still sore that a University of Arkansas lawyer reportedly advised a university official to destroy some documents because they otherwise might be discoverable under FOI. Does Arkansas need a better record retention law and still more and easier access to public documents via the web? Indeed we do.

And we also need live streaming of Senate proceedings.

Rep. Bell said he's working on legislation to require recording of executive sessions of governmental bodies. Too many are being held for impermissible purposes, he suspects. As do I. If a record existed that somebody could review, he proposes that such reviews could be referred to prosecutors when the tapes showed meetings were held for impermissible reasons. There are a number of practical and legal questions about implementation of this idea, but putting the fear of the law in the many scofflaws who sit on governing councils is, I admit, an idea with some appeal.

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