Sanders is scaling back his plans to amend the state’s Freedom of Information Act to include records related to security details

After overwhelming opposition, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders has scaled back her plans to amend Arkansas’ Freedom of Information Act, instead asking the Legislature to restrict public access to records related to her security details.

The change came at the end of the second day of a special session in which the Republican governor called in part to amend Arkansas’ sunshine law. Previous proposals to change Arkansas’ open records and meetings law, considered by newspaper groups to be among the most transparent laws in the country, would have restricted communications between the governor’s staff and Cabinet secretaries, making it difficult for those who sue under it to recover from the law. Fees and prohibition of records “prepared by an attorney” representing a government official or agency that may be used in pending litigation.

Instead, the governor, along with 25 Republican senators who co-sponsored Senate Bill 10, settled on exempting documents related to the governor’s Arkansas State Police detail and “records reflecting the planning or provision of security services provided” to constitutional employees And the judges. .

“I have asked the Senate and House to introduce a bill limited to security, which is the most critical and important aspect of FOIA reform,” Sanders said in a statement. “No one said changing the status quo would be easy, but this is a great starting point for making our government safer and more effective.”

Rep. David Ray, R-Mommel, has introduced an identical companion bill, House Bill 1012. Both bills would be retroactive to June 1, 2022. Both bills would require the Arkansas State Police to submit a quarterly report to lawmakers detailing expenditures related to the governor’s expenses . Protection details.

Just hours earlier, Sanders had been adamant about the need for broad changes to the state’s Freedom of Information Act, tweeting that activists could “file frivolous lawsuits to stifle our agenda and make taxpayers foot the bill.” The Sanders campaign also lobbied to support the bill, saying the state’s sunshine law hurts its agenda.

“We have an outdated law — passed in 1967 — that crushes our ability to defend these laws and defeat the radical left,” a text from the governor’s campaign said. “Click here to contact your legislator and tell them we need to pass SB 9 to defend our conservative victories in Arkansas from radical left activists.”

The proposal, which Sanders said would help ensure her safety and make government more efficient, was met with bipartisan resistance as liberal groups and GOP officials combined in opposition to the bill. Previous bills to amend the Freedom of Information Act have drawn strong rebuke from liberal and conservative advocacy groups, media representatives and residents who say the proposals would weaken government transparency.

While Senate President Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, was confident he would have the majority in the chamber to pass Sanders’ FOIA reform proposal, Hester and the GOP caucus announced hours later: “We have heard the concerns from us and the people of Arkansans understand the need to protect the governor and her family.” And the officers who protect it.”

(Document: Read House Bill 1010 » arkansasonline.com/913housebill1010/)

“We have worked through the legislative process and drafted a new bill,” Hester said. “The safety of our governor and her family must be our top priority.” “Senate Bill 10 focuses on protecting the security details of our Governor and her young children.

“We believe that the other sections of this policy that we have discussed over the past few days should continue to be discussed because they are very important,” he said.

“We are asking the Attorney General and his FOIA Working Group to immediately begin reviewing and making recommendations to the Legislature on Senate Bill 9,” Hester said.

In a statement, Attorney General Tim Griffin, who has formed a working group to examine changes to the Freedom of Information Act, said, “I believe HB1012 and SB10, which focus solely on safety and security, are very reasonable, and I support them.” “.

“In any case, the FOIA Advisory Group continues to work, and we will not conclude our review until at least late 2024,” he added.

When asked why the public was not given the right to know what individual trips the governor is taking and who is traveling on the plane, Hester said, “It is very appropriate that we do what we do to protect the governor and her family.”

Hester said the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee will hold a public hearing on Senate Bill 10 this morning, and he does not know whether a Senate attempt to get the bill out of committee will be needed.

He said, “We have support from the House of Representatives and the executive authority in this step.”

“After continued feedback from our panel, we reached out to the governor’s office and said, ‘We think this is what we can do now in a three- or four-day session,'” Hester said.

“None of us were given the opportunity to do the rest of the things that we think should happen,” he said.

“We will always have the ability to audit each individual expenditure from a legislative perspective” under the bill, Hester said. Asked why the FOIA needed to be changed now, he said: “I think we have a different governor with different circumstances.

“We haven’t had a governor with children since our governor was a child, so there are five people we have to worry about now,” Hester said.

“Things are very different. The world is a different place, and we believe that protecting our ruler is of the utmost importance.”

(Document: Read House Bill 1011 » arkansasonline.com/913housebill1011/)

Hester said he hopes to conclude the special session on Thursday, the fourth day of the special session. As for the House, which has not yet considered any FOIA bills during the special session, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Matthew Shepard, R-El Dorado, said in an email that he supports the latest proposal.

On Monday, the first day of the special session, the House stumbled out of the gate after a motion to suspend the rules to speed up the parliamentary process failed after taking multiple votes.

Robert Steinbush, author of a legal treatise on Arkansas’ FOIA and a vocal critic of previous bills to amend it, said he supports the latest proposals.

“This was democracy in action, and we got a good outcome for everyone,” said Steinbush, a law professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

“Our newspaper supports reasonable safety provisions in the bill that will protect elected officials and their families,” Eliza Hoseman Gaines, publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and president of the Arkansas Press Association, said in a statement. “I’m glad no major changes have been made to our robust Freedom of Information Act.”

Not everyone supported the new draft law. Attorney and blogger Matthew Campbell, who filed a request with the Arkansas State Police about how much it spent protecting Sanders, and which sparked controversy over whether to release records on the governor’s protective details, said he is against the new bill.

Campbell also requested records of state police expenses when officers accompanied Sanders on a business mission to Europe in June, including the costs of plane tickets and hotel rooms for her protection. Campbell also wanted lists of passengers who traveled with Sanders on an Arkansas State Police plane.

House Minority Leader Tippi McCullough of Little Rock said members of the House Democratic Caucus were still reviewing the newly introduced bill Tuesday night.

“It’s better than what was there, but it could be scaled back further,” McCullough said in an interview.

Marathon hearing

Evidence of bipartisan opposition to the FOIA amendment could be seen at a 5-hour Senate Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee meeting on Tuesday, where Arkansans from across the political spectrum spoke out against the bill.

People gathered at the Old Supreme Court inside the state Capitol, and nearly all of them expressed opposition to an earlier bill, more expansive legislation that would have exempted proposed changes to the Freedom of Information Act.

Under the proposal, government officials attempted to protect “government records reflecting communications between the governor or his staff and the Cabinet-level secretary of administration” from disclosure.

In addition, records “prepared by counsel” representing a government official or agency that could be used in pending litigation or “anticipated in light of a reasonable threat of litigation” could be withheld from the public, while also making it more difficult for those who file lawsuits under the Act. Freedom of information to recover legal fees.

“Information is the currency of our democracy,” said Jennifer Lancaster, an attorney and president of Saline County Republican Women. “An informed public is the core of our democracy, and this bill does not bode well for our democracy.”

“There is no one in the electorate who wants less transparency and accountability from government,” Julie McDonald of Arkansas Progressive Women told the committee.

“You have united this political spectrum against such a measure,” MacDonald said. “I didn’t know anything could unite us like this anymore.”

Jimmy Cavin, a self-described First Amendment advocate, got into a contentious argument with committee Chairman Blake Johnson. Cavin said Johnson was “disrespectful” to others who testified against the bill. Johnson asked Kavin to stop interrupting him. Johnson then relieved Caven, leading to a heated exchange in which Caven said Johnson was a “bully,” prompting the Republican senator to suggest police officers in the chamber remove Caven.

After public testimony, the session was adjourned without a vote, an implicit admission that there was not enough support to pass the bill out of committee. Instead, late Tuesday afternoon, the plan was to bypass the model procedure and take the bill out of committee to present it to the Senate, Hester said.

The only people who spoke in favor of the bill were Inspector General Allison Bragg, Secretary of Finance and Administration Jim Hudson, Arkansas State Police Director Mike Hager, and Doug Elms, a security consultant contracted by the state.

Hager said his agency needs to withhold some records to protect the governor’s state police patterns and practices. Hager fired at Campbell, who said he was looking to embarrass the governor by requesting records.

“It’s been said that we’re trying to hide something or that we’re doing something different,” Hager said. “I just want to make it clear that we have never disclosed any operational details at all, not once, in the state police that we are aware of,” he said.

Campbell said he watched parts of the hearing from afar, and specifically objected to Hager’s testimony directed at him. He said it was surreal that his request for the records prompted Sanders to propose changing the state’s sunshine law.

Like others, Campbell, a frequent Sanders critic, pointed to unexpected allies in the fight against the bills.

“In a weird way, it makes you feel good about the country,” he said. “Just to know that there are still some issues that when the government takes it too far, the whole country says, ‘Oh, no, it doesn’t matter what our political conviction is. We’re not going to let that happen.'”

Information for this article was contributed by Will Langhorne of the Arkansas Democrat.

Correction: This story has been edited to clarify a quote from Sen. Bart Hester.

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