The Saline Courier Weekend
HB 1399 seeks to take government actions out of public view
We love the state of Arkansas.
It’s full of dichotomous beauty. Like the Ozark Mountains and the Mississippi Delta, both are beautiful for different reasons. With talent ranging from Al Green to Johnny Cash to Justin Moore, Arkansas’s musicality is as wide ranging and diverse as its people.
We’re also a state of firsts, some good and some bad. Central High School was the first high school to integrate its students, and the first state to ban doctors from performing gender-affirming treatment for trans youth. Arkansas had the first Walmart store, was the first state to mandate computer science classes for high schoolers, and is the first state whose first lady ran for President of the United States.
Elected representatives in the Arkansas Legislature are currently introducing and reviewing a bill that would be another first for us. If this bill passes, we would be the first generation of Arkansans to be less informed than our parents about government activities that impact each of us.
Legislators have re-written a bill that works for the public into a bill that works for them.
If House Bill 1399 passes, it would allow Arkansas cities and counties to conduct the people’s business without publishing details about it in local newspapers. Alternatively, these same legislators who are most definitely internet-driven individuals are assuming that the rest of us have the time, patience and broadband connectivity in every corner of the state’s 75 counties to search online and find notices about how they are spending taxpayers’ money.
Or, perhaps they are hoping you won’t be able to see what their idea of “small government” is your city government policing itself and assuming the watchdog role assigned to the free press.
This bill isn’t complicated; it removes newspapers from the process allowing government to make moves without a checks and balance. A Constitutional conservative would see the flaw there.
Newspapers are the town criers. We are the independent watchdogs, without prejudice, that are easily accessible at the corner convenience store or newspaper rack for readers who are not as ‘wired’ for online searching as our elected representatives.
As an official newspaper of record, we provide verification in the form of copies of the printed pages and affidavits that the cities and counties met obligations and that the message was delivered to readers. And we archive every publication so it can be searched regardless of security breaches, unlike what happened in the fall as municipalities were pulling together delinquent tax lists.
How does this affect you? Suppose you look out your window and see bulldozers and construction workers building a gas station where your neigbhbor’s house used to be. If you read the newspaper, you might have known about the rezoning plans and variances granted well before the workers showed up.
But under the proposed bill, the Legislature is putting the onus on you, the citizen, to track city and county websites to keep tabs on what your elected leaders are doing.
Open meetings, the freedom to access information that should be public and notifying citizens about how governments spend the taxpayers’ money are the areas that belong outside the government.
Why would Arkansas legislators deter community governments from openness and transparency? That’s not smaller government. That’s a government that’s too big for its britches.