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A government transparency group took the first formal step Monday to refer a proposed constitutional amendment to the 2024 ballot that would prevent the state Legislature from making government less open without a statewide vote.
A product of several public revisions, the submitted version proposes three main additions to the Arkansas Constitution:
- Creating the right to government transparency in Arkansas.
- Requiring a law that makes government less transparent to be approved by the people of Arkansas, with an exception for emergencies.
- Allowing the state of Arkansas to be sued in state court for failing to comply with state transparency laws.
The group, which is composed of attorneys and advocates with interests in open government, plans to propose a companion initiated act next month.
Drafts of that initiated act have focused on more specific provisions related to the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act that leaders of the transparency groups have said would be more appropriate in state statute rather than the Constitution. They include the creation of a new state commission intended to help citizens access public meetings and records as well as enforce compliance with state open-government laws.
Monday’s ballot language submission starts a 10-day period Griffin and his staff have to review the ballot title and popular name for clarity and accuracy.
With Griffin’s sign-off, the group may begin canvassing the state for signatures. By July 5, 90,704 registered voters must sign petitions for proposed constitutional amendments to qualify for the ballot. Initiated acts require 72,563 signatures.
“We are hopeful that the Attorney General will approve the measure as drafted but stand ready to address any concerns raised by the Attorney General and his office in the approval process,” the Arkansas Citizens for Transparency drafting committee said in a statement.
Who drafted the proposed ballot measures?
Members of the Arkansas Citizens for Transparency drafting committee that worked on the proposed amendment and initiated act include:
Chairman Clarke Tucker, an attorney and Democratic state senator
Nate Bell, a former independent state representative
David Couch, an attorney known for work on ballot initiatives
Jen Standerfer, an attorney who previously worked on drafting legislation for the General Assembly and a former Democratic candidate for state House
Robert Steinbuch, a law professor and an author of the treatise on the Arkansas FOIA and former Republican candidate for state House
John Tull, an attorney who has represented media outlets in First Amendment and public records cases
Ashley Wimberley, the executive director of the Arkansas Press Association
“We are grateful for the overwhelming input we have received on the draft language from every corner of the state. We are eager to finalize the language so that the signature-gathering process necessary to put these measures on the ballot can begin. We remain steadfast in our hope that the people of Arkansas will have an opportunity to vote on these measures in November 2024 and that Arkansas will continue to serve as a model for government transparency for the nation.”
The nonpartisan open government group formed after Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders advocated for several exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act and signed one into law after a special legislative session in September.
Those efforts met fierce bipartisan resistance and spawned an unlikely group of allies for the protection of the FOIA.
The chief change being proposed by the Arkansas Government Transparency Amendment prohibits “the General Assembly from amending a law or enacting law to diminish public access to government.”
Such laws could only be enacted if a two-thirds majority of the General Assembly refers them to the next general election ballot and Arkansas voters approve them.
In emergencies, the amendment would allow the General Assembly to immediately enact a law diminishing public access to government with a 90% vote, but such a measure would still go before the people at the next general election.
The draft amendment defines “diminishes public access to government” as “making a public process, public meeting, public notice, or public record less transparent or modifying the legal standard for or limiting the recovery of penalties, fees, expenses, or costs.”
It defines ”less transparent to the people” as “reducing the public’s access to view, hear, attend, obtain knowledge of, or engage in a public process or public meeting, repealing, removing, or reducing any time, place manner, term, or medium of public notice, exempting any portion of a public record from disclosure requirements, designating any portion of a public record to be confidential, or making the process for requesting, obtaining, receiving, or viewing any portion of a public record more difficult, complicated, or expensive for the Arkansas citizen.”
The amendment would take effect on Nov. 6, 2024, the day following the general election.
As for the initiated act, the drafting committee is continuing to accept public feedback. It will host a video conference for input on the proposal on Wednesday from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Details for accessing the call will be provided on the group’s Facebook page an hour before the meeting.
“We hope to incorporate input received at this meeting and submit a final draft of the Arkansas Government Transparency Act in the early days of December,” the drafting committee said in a statement.
Arkansas Advocate is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Arkansas Advocate maintains editorial independence. This article was published with permission from the Arkansas Advocate. Contact Editor Sonny Albarado for questions: [email protected]. Follow Arkansas Advocate on Facebook and Twitter.