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Diminishing the FOI

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The people's right to know what their government's doing is suppressed in order to guard the privacy of government employees who transmit pornographic material on public time while using public equipment. This is hardly what the authors of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act had in mind. It is what Buddy Villines and the Supreme Court have brought us to. They acted independently, but collusion could not have produced a bigger mess.

The drafters of the FOI knew that no matter how detailed and emphatic the law might be in declaring government records ultimately open to the people, its benefit would be severely limited if those officials keeping secrets were allowed to string out enforcement proceedings so that taxpayers' money and patience were exhausted before they got the relief they sought. Not only would those particular citizens be denied justice, their example would discourage others from seeking it.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's lawsuit to require exposure of certain e-mails kept by Pulaski County government could and should have been resolved by now, and a conscientious circuit judge, Mary Spencer McGowan, tried to do so. But the county government, led by County Judge Villines, has resisted tenaciously, and a majority of the Supreme Court has rewarded the county's intransigence. The case drags on. The Democrat-Gazette has deep pockets with which to continue the fight. Most taxpayers don't.

The e-mails were sent by a former county comptroller, now charged with embezzlement of county funds, and his paramour, a vendor with whom the county did business. Some of the e-mails are said to be pornographic. There is no exemption in the FOI for pornography. Clean or dirty, public records are subject to public inspection. Villines and the justices seem confused on this point.

They could find enlightenment, if so inclined, in the words of Associate Justice Tom Glaze. Dissenting from the Court's dilatory rulings, Glaze has said that to interpret the FOI as the court majority is doing is to undermine the purpose of the law. Absurd, he calls it. Absurdity is becoming all too common in the Court's FOI decisions. Forty years ago, when the FOI was young, the Supreme Court interpreted the law as the legislature instructed — broadly, in favor of disclosure. More recently, the Court has narrowed its reading of the FOI. It's a most unhealthy trend.

Will the Arkansas Farm Bureau Federation name Michael Vick its Man of the Year? As of press time, there was no confirmation. But insiders say Farm Bureau officials are impressed by Vick's accomplishments in animal husbandry.

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