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Sunshine Week

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April 18, 2010 by wcobserver

It’s not just spring – it’s Sunshine Week. This “sunshine” refers to a national initiative by the American Society of News Editors to educate the public about the importance of open, transparent and accountable government at all levels. Sunshine Week began in Florida in 2002 as a reaction to efforts by some Florida legislators to create exemptions to the state’s public records law. Efforts to protect freedom of information laws and maintain open access to government records succeeded. A grant from the Knight Foundation helped launch Sunshine Week which coincides with National FOI (Freedom of Information) Day and James Madison’s birthday on March 16. This year the event is recognized March 14 – 20.

Arkansas’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was born as Act 93 of 1967. The Legislative intent is stated: “It is vital in a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner so that the electors shall be advised of the performance of public officials and of decisions that are reached in public activity and in making public policy. Toward this end, this chapter is adopted, making it possible for them or their representatives to learn and to report fully the activities of their public officials”.

Because newspapers and other news media have been considered the watchdogs for the public’s interest in open government, some people incorrectly assume that freedom of information laws are just for news organizations. They’re not.  Any citizen is entitled to a copy of any public document. The newspapers do not have special access to government documents or any privileges different than that of any citizen. 

Here’s how it works at the local government level. Go the person in the city administration who is the designated “custodian of records.”  Tell them what you want a copy of or what information you are seeking. The information can be in any medium; printed, audio recording, computer disk, films, tapes, or in any form that records are kept. Personnel records and some police and court records are exempt. You may be required to pay a nominal copy charge if you are requesting a large amount of copying. A copy of the West Fork Code Book, for example cost the Observer $26.

All public meetings, whether formal or informal, regular or special are covered by the FOIA . It includes, “governing bodies of all municipalities, counties, townships, and school districts and all boards, bureaus, commissions, or organizations of the State of Arkansas, except grand juries, supported wholly or in part by public funds or expending public funds shall be public”.  A good understanding of FOIA can be found in the “Arkansas Freedom of Information Handbook” which is available from the Arkansas Attorney General’s office or by contacting the Observer.

That’s what the letter of the law says, how about the sprit of the law? How are the city governments in our area stacking up? Fayetteville is queen of open government. They use every means available to keep the citizens informed including archived video recordings of meetings on their web site and social media such as Facebook and twitter. Of course, a larger town has more resources to provide more access. But the small town of Greenland is also a leader in transparent government. Their web site posts not only minutes of city council meetings but also city ordinances and resolutions.  The village of Winslow ….

While the sunshine maybe flowing to neighboring towns, the conditions in West Fork are overcast with dense fog. If you want a specific piece of information, the minuets of a particular meeting, for example, they will provide it. It’s the law. If you want to peruse the minutes of meeting to analyze  the voting record of a particular councilmember, you will have difficulty. That problem could be solved by simply posting the minutes on the internet where they are accessible to anyone, anytime from anywhere, (not just available at city hall during business hours).

A previous city administration evidently was heading in the direction regarding internet access to council meeting minutes.  The Arkansas Municipal League provides a Home Page for cities on its web site. Reaching the site takes more than one click – go to www.arml.org, go to “Cities of Arkansas”, then to “government portal”, enter “West Fork “.  The page displays data about West Fork’s early history, type of government and the names of elected officials. From the bar at the top of the page one can go to “Local News, “Events,” “Photos” and yes, a page titled “Documents.” When we chanced across this site a few months ago it contained a job application form and the minutes of …council meetings dated from …to.  We suggested to the business manager and city treasures that this site, which was already established, could serve as an archive for minuets. No action was taken. The Observer printed off some of the minuets with the intention of printing them all for our research use.  We returned to the site last week, ironically at the beginning of Sunshine Week.  There were changes. The site had been updated on Feb,…..  There were new posts describing the parks, recycling, and farmers market.  Missing were the minuets of the council meetings. 

Maybe mistakes were made. Maybe someone inadvertently hit the delete key. Maybe the sunshine will return someday.

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