MIKE MASTERSON: Let the sun shine
published in Democrat Gazette
I realize there are those who, when they see the phrase "freedom of information," might skip to the sports section or comics. The acronym FOIA has a bureaucratic flavor that to some must say:"Nothing here for me to read."
But I contend they're mistaken.
Our state's Freedom of Information Act, wisely adopted by the Legislature in 1967, is perhaps the finest piece of relatively modern transparency legislation enacted on behalf of everyone who shares this state as home.
Just look at the raft of misdeeds we've witnessed in the past three years as no fewer than five former lawmakers along with others involved in their good-ol'-boy circle of greed and corruption have been convicted of crimes involving grant programs and illegal financial dealings. I gain a great deal of satisfaction from knowing so much of these wheelings and dealings often are revealed because of our FOIA, long considered one of the strongest in the country.
As a journalist, I've successfully used the FOIA laws for 49 years. I've also known colleagues who created a virtual cottage industry out of reporting from information they mined from such requests. I've been in a courtroom more than once to defend the law. That includes the year the Hot Springs Sentinel-Record sued the school board whose members claimed matters involving students were exempt because they were considered "employees." Yeah, the judge considered that preposterous too.
Yet it shows the lengths some elected public servants and entrenched bureaucrats resort to when trying to hide information from the public that pays them to do its business with integrity and some sense of honor.
While heading the investigative team at the Arizona Republic in Phoenix, we had a folder filled with prepared FOIA requests ready to fill in. The responses we received in investigation of corruption in federal Indian programs or mismedicating our nation's elderly proved critical to our reports on those issues, as well as a series on injecting profoundly developmentally disabled Native American women without their knowledge with a palliative drug known to cause cancer in lab animals to keep them from becoming pregnant.
Back in Arkansas between 2012 and 2019, I sent FOIA requests to our state's department of Environmental Quality and others in gathering information about the large hog factory that agencywrongheadedly allowed to set up shop in our sacred Buffalo National River watershed.
Imagine just how much we wouldn't know without this valuable law. I only wish it had more teeth capable of inflicting serious discomfort to those found guilty of ignoring or intentionally violating it. And believe me, that sort of thing happens regularly.
So I was pleased to see the annual spring Freedom of Information Act Symposium sponsored by the Transparency in GovernmentGroup (TIGG) is scheduled for 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. March 16 at the Riverfront Wyndham Hotel in North Little Rock. It will coincide with National Freedom of Information Day activities across the country.
The gathering, open to the public, will focus upon key issues related to the state's Freedom of Information Act, a far-reaching statute also known as "the people's law." The press release announcing the symposium said the vital FOIA legislation, still pretty much relatively unchanged from its original version, "seeks to make more transparent the operation of many of the aspects of all local and state governmental entities throughout Arkansas.
"TIGG is comprised of five local, self-directing chapters in BellaVista, Conway, Fort Smith, Harrison and Hot Springs. Each chapter holds activities focused on better understanding of the purposes of the FOIA while encouraging citizen interest and positive utilization of the law that is available to any citizen, not only journalists and lawyers.
The symposium speakers promise to be informative. Beth Walker of the state's attorney general's office, widely regarded for sharing her vast knowledge of FOIA, will be there, as will Dr. Robert Steinbuch, a professor of law at Little Rock's William H. Bowen School of Law. He's co-author of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act treatise--a publication acknowledged by many as the "bible"concerning Arkansas FOIA issues. His hour-long afternoon "FOIA Today" session is sanctioned by the Arkansas Continuing Legal Education Board, which meansattorneys who attend that session are eligible to receive one hour of Continuing Legal Education credit.
The Arkansas FOIA Coalition, a volunteer group of journalists and other citizens interested in legislative issues affecting governmental openness and transparency, will explain its operations and findings. Members of the state's FOIA Task Force, consisting of nine people representing government, academia and the media, will address the gathering.
Finally, the symposium will bring others to share expertise in all matters involving transparency in the public interest, including Daniel Shue, the prosecuting attorney from Fort Smith, home of Joey McCutchen, my favorite FOIA bulldog attorney.
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism programat Ohio State University. Email him firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editorial on 3/03/2020