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Arkansas transparency group will collect signatures for proposed amendment OK’d by AG

Arkansas transparency group will collect signatures for proposed amendment OK’d by AG

by Tess Vrbin, Arkansas Advocate
January 24, 2024

Arkansas government transparency advocates will begin collecting signatures for a November ballot measure to enshrine government openness in the state Constitution.

Attorney General Tim Griffin certified language for four potential popular names and ballot titles, including “The Arkansas Government Disclosure Amendment of 2024,” a title he substituted for the submission of “The Arkansas Government Transparency Amendment.”

Griffin’s opinions issued Wednesday approved Arkansas Citizens for Transparency’s third attempt to advance the proposed amendment after he rejected previous attempts in December and earlier this month.

In addition to seeking the required 90,704 signatures from registered voters by July 5, the nonpartisan ACT will continue with the lawsuit it filed against Griffin at the Arkansas Supreme Court on Tuesday, said David Couch, the lead attorney in the lawsuit and a member of ACT’s drafting committee.

The legal complaint alleges that Griffin’s past refusals to certify the proposed amendment were to prevent the group from having enough time to gather signatures in support of the measures, and it asks the court to “compel the Attorney General to approve or rewrite the popular name and ballot title for each measure.”

Griffin wrote in his rejection of the first draft that the petitioners needed to define “government transparency,” which he claimed had “partisan coloring.” Subsequent versions of the ballot language define the term as “the government’s obligation to share information with citizens.”

Couch said the second iteration of the ballot language, rejected Jan. 8, was ACT’s preferred version. The first two amendment proposals said the state Legislature “shall not make a law that diminishes public access to government” without the approval of the people of Arkansas.

The third proposal did not include this clause or a definition of the phrase “diminishes public access to government.” Instead it said the Legislature “shall not make a law concerning government transparency” without the people’s approval.

Couch said the change was necessary to receive Griffin’s approval but was not satisfactory in ACT’s view.

“Why should the people have to vote on something that benefits them if the General Assembly has passed it?” he said.

The proposed amendment would require two-thirds of both the House and Senate to approve a government transparency law, which would then be sent to the voters. In emergency situations, a law would go into effect with 90% approval from both chambers but still be subject to a statewide vote later.

Opinion No. 2024-005

2024-005.pdf (27 downloads )

Next steps

ACT will start collecting signatures for a version of the amendment certified Wednesday in hopes of meeting the July 5 deadline, Couch said, but the legal challenge of Griffin’s use of his powers regarding ballot titles will continue.

“It’s such an important principle, not only for us but for people who intend to collect signatures in the future,” Couch said. “The attorney general’s role in the process needs to be clarified by the Supreme Court.”

The Arkansas AG’s office had long reviewed ballot titles and popular names until the General Assembly, with support of then-Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, shifted ballot title certification responsibility to the State Board of Election Commissioners in 2019.

Early last year, Act 194 of 2023 shifted this power back to the attorney general’s office.

ACT is not the only group to have recently taken legal action to get language certified for proposed constitutional amendments with the goal of putting them on the November ballot.

Group submits third proposed Arkansas FOIA change to attorney general after second rejection

Earlier this month, the nonprofit Arkansas Voter Integrity Initiative asked the Supreme Court to certify two measures aimed at trading voting machines for hand-marked paper ballots and limiting absentee voting. Griffin rejected one measure and certified a substitute proposal for the other. The Supreme Court granted a motion last week for an expedited hearing in the case.

Couch filed a motion asking the high court for an expedited hearing in ACT’s case on Wednesday.

ACT has also submitted a third version of ballot language for an initiated act, which would alter the state Freedom of Information Act. Griffin will issue an opinion Thursday on the proposal.

A primary goal of the proposed act, the drafters have said, is to codify a definition of a “public meeting” and broaden the legal definitions of a “governing body” and “communication” among members.

The statutory changes would also:

  • Protect citizens’ right to appeal FOIA decisions and collect any resulting attorneys’ fees.
  • Create the Arkansas Government Transparency Commission, with its members appointed by state elected officials, to help citizens enforce their rights to obtain public records and observe public meetings.
  • Create stiffer civil penalties for violating the FOIA.Repeal Act 883 of 2023, which gave Arkansas school boards more reasons to go into executive session and allow more people to have closed-door meetings with school board members.
  • Mandate that records concerning the planning or provision of security services to the governor and other state elected officials be considered public and accessible under the FOIA after three months.

ACT formed in response to Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ signing of a law enacted during a special legislative session in September that shields certain state officials’ security records from public access. Sanders advocated for several more exemptions to the FOIA that met bipartisan pushback and did not advance in the Legislature.

Arkansas Advocate is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Arkansas Advocate maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sonny Albarado for questions: Follow Arkansas Advocate on Facebook and Twitter.

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