The Municipal League’s Attack on the Freedom of Information Act

Here we go again. The Arkansas Municipal League has put out a series of proposals to gut the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). At least they’re consistent — as they’ve previously attempted to undermine transparency in Arkansas and tarnish the Natural State’s legislative crown jewel.

The Municipal League has a handful of proposals, most of them rehashing their already failed efforts. I’ll focus on a few of them.

First, the good news:  the Municipal League suggests situating all FOIA exemptions in one code section. That’s a sound proposal. Of course, this isn’t a substantive change. It merely (albeit admirably) recommends aggregating exemptions so that, among others, municipal workers can easily have one-stop shopping to determine the scope of the FOIA. This is an excellent example of the way that municipal workers’ experience offers insight to improve efficiency in the application of policy-makers’ goals.

Unfortunately, two of the Municipal League’s other proposals seek to replace the wisdom of state lawmakers with self-interested goals that are clearly inconsistent with fifty years of Arkansas public policy of government openness. Arkansas is at the vanguard of public transparency.  Nonetheless, we have recently seen outright public corruption in our legislature resulting in criminal charges and convictions, and it is reasonable to predict even more serious charges to come. The Municipal League’s proposals discussed below will result in more cronyism, corruption, and graft.  That’s bad for everyone in Arkansas.

The first bad proposal is the idea that government workers should be able to charge citizens — who have already paid for FOIA responses through their tax bills — a second time when they request public records. The Municipal League repeats the false mantra that responding to FOIA requests interferes with their work. The fatal flaw in this argument is that responding to FOIA requests is the job of government workers, and state law has made this clear for over 50 years.

If the Municipal League’s true concern were limited resources, they would simply seek greater funding to hire dedicated FOIA employees. The Municipal League, however, seeks to make fees for FOIA responses discretionary — at the call of the very employees whose actions will be under scrutiny. Can you guess which requests will result in demands for exorbitant charges? I can.

Finally, the Municipal League seeks to exempt a trove of public records that go to public attorneys. The Municipal League contends that they just want to be treated like the private sector.  Here’s the problem: they’re not in the private sector. They don’t have shareholders to whom they have to answer under penalty of termination; they’re not employees at will; they’re not subject to pay cuts in bad times; they have guaranteed funding by legally having their hands in your pockets through taxes, and; they and their attorneys are paid by you. The Municipal League’s argument is, effectively, “give us your money, and we’ll decide whether it’s well spent.” Uh, no thanks.

Observers of politics have no doubt heard the saying, “You can’t fight City Hall.” This aphorism can be understood in many ways; many people take it to mean that the citizen who sues a city is at a gigantic disadvantage, because the plaintiff must pay the legal bills for both sides — one out of his or her own pocket, and the other out of the taxes that he or she pays. On the other hand, the notion that the private citizen has the advantage when it comes to litigation, as implied by the Municipal League’s proposal, is difficult to defend.

Notably, the two Municipal League FOIA-undermining provisions would result in both less work for and less oversight on, wait for it, Municipal League members. I’m particularly suspicious of allegedly objective proposals that result in windfalls to those making the recommendations. You should be too.

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