The state Freedom of Information law has been damaged substantially in recent years, by the legislature and the courts, amply demonstrating that there are officials in all branches of government who believe taxpayers have grown too big for their britches when they ask how their government operates and who operates it.
The current session of the General Assembly provides a rare opportunity for legislators to shore up the FOI — slightly — rather than undermine it further. The lawmakers aren’t leaping at the chance.
State agencies have a troubling habit of concealing public records from the public. Sometimes people sue to enforce their rights. Existing law says that state agencies who lose FOI lawsuits filed against them cannot be required to pay the attorneys’ fees of the plaintiffs. This discourages the filing of such suits. HB 1520 by Rep. Lindsley Smith of Fayetteville would remove this unwarranted protection, making effective enforcement of the FOI more likely, because the agencies would have more to lose when they’re caught evading it.
HB 1520 might also — and there is some disagreement about this — make it easier for plaintiffs to win attorneys’ fees in FOI cases involving local government agencies. If so, so much the better. Most FOI plaintiffs have limited resources, while defendants can dip into the public treasury to pay the lawyers who shield them from sunlight. In effect, the people’s money is used to keep the people in the dark.
The House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee has failed to give HB 1520 a favorable recommendation. The bill deserves another vote in committee, and approval by the full legislature. The people’s right to know is still worth protecting.
Torturers have friends
We’re mighty glad that not all Arkansas farmers are as mean as the Arkansas Farm Bureau, which claims to represent them. Once again, the Farm Bureau is fighting legislation that would protect animals from the worst kinds of abuse. SB 777 by Sen. Sue Madison of Fayetteville would put teeth in the state’s puny animal-cruelty laws by making cruelty to animals in an “especially depraved manner” a felony, as it is in most states. Those who torture animals for sport could be given real punishment (though most of them wouldn’t). The bill has been watered down to meet Farm Bureau objections. Still the Bureau demands the right to set cats on fire and throw dogs from moving cars.