Open government advocates should be pleased that a bill by State Rep. Nate Bell cleared a major hurdle today.
From the Associated Press:
Employees seeking public information would be guaranteed protections under a proposal approved by an Arkansas House committee.
The House Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs unanimously supported the bill on Wednesday. The proposal would make it illegal for any public employer to fire, discipline or reprimand an employee who uses the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
The law allows the citizens to access most public data, such as governmental contracts and employee salaries.
Republican Rep. Nate Bell of Mena says he was contacted about the idea by a public employee who had been reprimanded by an employer after using the law. He says the bill would protect employees’ freedom of speech.
Although public employees already have the right to access public information via the Freedom of Information Act, this bill makes it clear that public employees can’t be punished for taking advantage of this legal right.
In short, regardless of whether people in the bureaucratic hierarchy think a public employee shouldn’t have access to certain public information, the law is the law.
UALR Law Prof. Robert Steinbuch, Arkansas’s foremost FOIA expert, said in an e-mail that the bill would “prevent these retaliating bureaucrats from further attempting to skirt the law.”
Representative Nate Bell’s current FOIA bill improves the outstanding FOIA reforms written by then-legislator Dan Greenberg. The original law prevents ill-motivated bureaucrats from retaliating against Arkansas public servants when they make FOIA requests. Unfortunately, recent history demonstrates that such wrongdoing by bureaucrats continues nonetheless. And with the leadership of our new Attorney General, I trust that we will enter a new period of government transparency and openness in the use of the taxpayers’ hard-earned and easily taxed money. That will represent a sea change from the previous era of cronyism and bureaucratic wheeling and dealing.
This bill really shouldn’t have had to have been filed. Public employees have rights under the Freedom of Information Act like anyone else. We hope that the passage of this bill will remind retaliating bureaucrats of that fact.