Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Arkansas newspapers:
Texarkana Gazette. March 10, 2018.
Back in 2002, some members of the Florida Legislature apparently decided the good folks who elected them were getting a bit too nosy about what was going on in the state capitol.
So they decided to offer legislation restricting the public’s access to some previously open records.
They might have gotten away with it. Many in the public would probably have never known.
But newspapers in the state decided to fight. They banded together and declared “Sunshine Sunday,” publishing articles and editorial against the proposals.
It took three years - but about 300 bills to restrict information were voted down in the Legislature, largely because of the media attention.
In 2005, the American Society of Newspaper Editors took the idea nationwide and extended it to seven days. Sunshine Week was set for mid-March to coincide with President James Madison’s birthday.
We in the news business pay special attention to this week and we encourage everyone to think about the importance of open government and open access to public information.
Because it’s not just journalists who benefit from such access.
Members of the public at times have reason to request public information and to file Freedom of Information Act requests from all levels of government, local, state or federal.
Yes, there are some things that must remain secret in the interest of national security. But the people of this great nation do not have to accept government that operates in the shadows. Our government officials must be accountable for their actions. Public awareness is a big part of that.
Sunshine Week is about that awareness.
Southwest Times Record. March 11, 2018.
“The basic purpose of FOIA is to ensure an informed citizenry, vital to the functioning of a democratic society, needed to check against corruption and to hold the governors accountable to the governed.”
- United States Supreme Court in NLRB v. Robbins Tire Co., 437 U.S. 214, 242 (1978)
It’s Sunshine Week, when we celebrate open government and the public’s right to know, things the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) allows us.
FOIA requires governing bodies - a city council or a school board, for example - to conduct its business in the open, only convening into closed session for a few reasons. It requires governing bodies to post notice of their meetings in the media and says members of governing bodies cannot gather outside of a meeting to discuss the public’s business. It allows anyone to have access to public records, not just journalists or other members of the media.
We in the media continue to champion FOIA as a tool that allows us to do our jobs. FOIA gives us the ability to investigate. It provides rights not just to newspapers and other media, but to the everyday person. And it still managers to make the news on a regular basis. Fort Smith school and city officials have undergone training in an effort to avoid violating FOIA in the future after both were found to be in violation last year. The city has appealed the most recent ruling that an email exchange last year violated the act. And Mansfield City Council members recently approved a settlement after a FOIA lawsuit was filed against it.
In short, FOIA violations are still happening, perhaps because communication continues to change. Conversations are taking place in evolving ways, from text message to Snapchat and beyond. New communication channels make it difficult for citizens and journalists to keep on top of what governing bodies are doing, whether it’s being done in the open or not. That means the public must remain on top of what is going on with its elected leaders, and it means leaders must be steadfast in their compliance. That may mean stopping to ask whether a text, phone call or email would violate FOIA. If no one has the answer, then perhaps more FOIA training is called for.
A great example of what FOIA can provide is the situation with now-former state Sen. Jake Files, who resigned from office this year after pleading guilty to bank fraud, wire fraud and money laundering. Without the Freedom of Information Act, it’s uncertain whether all of the accusations against Files would have happened. FOIA allowed reporters to uncover documents that raised questions about construction bids and payments with regards to the River Valley Sports Complex, on which Files served as a developer.
Last year, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Arkansas’ FOIA law, which was signed by Gov. Win Rockefeller on Feb. 14, 1967. On July 4, 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the first federal sunshine law in the U.S. The text of the bill states that “a democracy works best when people have all the information that the security of the nation will permit.”
We again encourage our local and state leaders to appreciate the FOIA’s importance and to abide by the spirit with which it was founded - that the public’s business should be conducted in public. Sunshine Week is a mere celebration of something that should be recognized all year long. Our democracy works only when its citizens are informed, and that begins with a transparent government.
This week, we will celebrate FOIA’s importance in the newsroom while encouraging area residents to learn more about it.
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. March 13, 2018.
It might have been Frederick Douglass who said it’s easier to build a strong child than to fix a broken man. Once again, he’s been proven right.
The news types at Arkansas’ Newspaper have been putting a lot of time into an investigation of the state’s juvenile justice system. Juvenile justice, it seems, changes county by county in this state because there doesn’t appear to be much of a uniform standard for which kids get which punishment, and how their cases are handled, evaluated, completed. Not yet, anyway.
The state’s Supreme Court youth commission hired an outfit called the Robert F. Kennedy National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice to evaluate probation systems around the state. The study found that kids and their families didn’t always get the help they needed.
Some judges say they’ve not read the report. Sometimes assessment tools aren’t used as suggested. And it’s disconcerting the way Arkansas pays the officers who work with these kids, and the hours We the People require of them.
One juvenile probation officer told our reporters that her caseload can sometimes run up to 120 kids.
Imagine having 120 kids to work with. Troubled kids. And we expect what from that kind of workload? Success? A public defender, in another part of our fractured system, said the state needs to spend more “resources,” that is, money, but …. “It’s just not going to happen. That’s the real world. Sadly, the kids are suffering for it.”
Justice Rhonda Wood, leading the Supreme Court’s Commission on Children, Youth and Families, said she hopes to see, even propose, changes at the 2019 Legislature, telling our reporters: “I’m sick of patching the roof. I want to see real reform.” So would most of us.
The juvenile system is different from the adult system, and should be. In the end, all these kids are going to walk out of the courtroom and back into our communities. (The worst young offenders can be tried as adults.) When it comes to juvenile justice, reform and rehab should be the focus.
Patching the roof isn’t cutting it. We the People have got to put more effort - and yes, that means money - into this.
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