October 11, 2023 (Little Rock, Ark.) – A group of Arkansas transparency advocates from all corners of the state, and of varied political affiliations, are working to protect the state’s Freedom of Information Act with a ballot initiative for a Constitutional Amendment.
In addition to maintaining the strength of the state’s existing FOIA, the group has also proposed in the draft amendment defining a public meeting, an area of the law that has been vague for some time. The amendment also proposes stricter penalties for those who violate FOIA.
“Arkansas has had one of the strongest Freedom of Information Acts in the country for 56 years,” said chair of the Constitutional Amendment Drafting Committee, Sen. Clarke Tucker. “Taking this vote to the people, who we know value government transparency, will ensure the law remains strong years to come.”
The group must collect 90,704 signatures, which is 10% of the citizens who voted in the previous election.
Upon release of the proposed amendment today, on which the group is seeking public feedback, the members of the Drafting Committee released the following statement:
It has become clear in recent years that it is critical to enshrine government transparency in Arkansas, regarding public records and public meetings, in our state constitution. Arkansas has been a national leader in government transparency since 1967, when Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller led the way for the enactment of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act. We, the undersigned, believe strongly that Arkansas should maintain, and even strengthen, our position of leadership on this vital issue. We further believe that having an open and transparent government is a right, and rights belong in the constitution. For that reason, this group has come together—in spite of our varied, and in some cases fundamentally opposed, political perspectives—to propose the Arkansas Government Transparency Amendment.
In preparing this Amendment, our goals have been to:
- Enshrine the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act, as it existed on September 1, 2023 (before the September 2023 special session), into the state constitution;
- Ensure that any further changes to the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act that reduce government transparency may only be approved by a vote of the people of Arkansas, while providing that laws that increase government transparency may be passed by the General Assembly;
- Change as little as possible in the existing Arkansas Freedom of Information Act, with the primary exception being to provide a definition for “public meeting,” which has been a hole in the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act for some time;
- Safeguard the ability of any citizen of Arkansas to enforce the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act by protecting their ability to recover attorney’s fees in the event that a Freedom of Information Act request is wrongfully denied;
- Create a penalty for bad actors who knowingly violate the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act;
- Account appropriately for the security of public officials and their minor children, balanced with the public’s right to know how our tax dollars are spent; and
- Keep the amendment language as simple as possible, while taking into account the vast number of laws existing in the Arkansas Code affecting government transparency.
Members of the drafting committee include Sen. Clarke Tucker, Chairman; Nate Bell; David Couch; Jennifer Waymack Standerfer; Robert Steinbuch; John E. Tull, III; and Ashley Kemp Wimberley.
A copy of the proposed amendment can be viewed at this link: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1MgkTgH8G0eqALzhvPmU3Rrd1m-AkVowe/view?usp=sharing
Those who wish to become involved in the Coalition may visit the group’s website at ARCitizens4Transparency.org or Facebook page at AR Citizens for Transparency.
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Senator Clarke Tucker was elected to the Senate in November of 2020 and is serving his second term as an Arkansas Senator, representing central Little Rock. Before being elected to the Senate, Senator Tucker served in the Arkansas House of Representatives from 2015 to 2019. He is an attorney in private practice in Little Rock and has been an advocate for government transparency both in his time in the legislature and in his law practice, where he has handled Freedom of Information Act cases.
Nate Bell is managing partner of Liberty Strategies LLC providing government affairs, strategy, lobbying and campaign services. He also consults on commercial and off grid solar power projects. He served in the Arkansas House from 2011-2017 where he chaired the State Agencies and Government Affairs Committee and served as House co-chair of the Joint Committee on Constitutional Amendments. He resides in Lincoln, Arkansas.
David Couch is an attorney with The Couch Firm in Little Rock and a public policy advocate. He represents people who have been neglected or abused in nursing homes. Since 2001, he has represented individuals in Arkansas and in more than 20 other states. He has authored and worked on numerous ballot measures, including ones to legalize medical marijuana, raise Arkansas’ minimum wage, enact campaign finance and ethics reforms and to modernize Arkansas’ antiquated “partial prohibition” system.
Jennifer Waymack Standerfer is an attorney with Waymack Standerfer Law, PLLC in Bentonville. She holds a Juris Doctorate from the University of Arkansas School of Law and has a demonstrated history of working in government affairs and administration. While she has represented clients throughout the state in all areas of the law, her expertise lies in Elections, Local Government and Criminal Justice.
Robert Steinbuch joined the UA-Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law faculty in 2005 after several years in private practice and government, including serving as counsel for the United States Senate Judiciary Committee. He is the author of the treatise on the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act, a columnist for the Democrat Gazette, Chair of the Arkansas Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and was recently cited by Supreme Court Justice Thomas in the Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard case.
John E. Tull, III, is a founding member of Quattlebaum, Grooms & Tull PLLC in Little Rock. In over 100 jury trials, Tull has served as lead counsel on behalf of large and small businesses and individuals in cases involving business torts, breach of contract, products liability, toxic torts, environmental litigation, securities fraud, franchise disputes, trade secrets, personal injury, First Amendment and other matters. He serves as general counsel for the Arkansas Press Association and instituted the Libel Hotline for the Association.
Ashley Kemp Wimberley is executive director of the Arkansas Press Association, the trade association for the state’s 100 newspapers. Wimberley became APA executive director in 2018, after 14 years at the association, advancing to leadership of an industry she has been affiliated with all her life. For many years, she has advocated for government transparency at the Arkansas State Capitol on behalf of the newspaper industry. She graduated summa cum laude from Union University in Jackson, Tennessee.