The Arkansas Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) (Hdbk. 25-19-101-25-19-107) is a law with which all municipal officials should become familiar. Municipal officials who negligently violate the FOI Act may be penalized by a fine of $200 or 30 days in jail or both. The primary categories of attention for municipal officials should be:
- Public Records
- Open Meetings
- Executive Sessions
“Public Records” are documents that are required by law to be kept and maintained. These would include the minutes from city council, planning and zoning, civil service, water and sewer, parks and recreation and any other meetings of a committee or commission established by ordinance or appointed by the mayor or city council. In addition, any public record, unless exempted by law, is subject to FOIA. Any citizen of the State of Arkansas may “inspect, copy, or receive copies of public records.” (Hdbk. 25-19-105). Citizens do not have to state a reason or purpose in order to inspect city records, the law says.
However, a request to inspect the records should be directed to the “custodian of the records” (usually the city clerk). The request does not have to be in writing, although this manual encourages city officials to ask (but not require) that anyone requesting to see or copy city records to make the request in writing because it provides a record if litigation occurs. If copies of public records are requested and if it is the policy of the city to charge a fee for copies, then the city may charge the actual costs of reproduction, but may not charge for the time of existing employees.
All meetings of municipal governing bodies are required to be open to the public (Hdbk. 25-19-106). Because meetings “shall be public” any person may attend. A quorum of the governing body need not be present for the meeting to be subject to the FOI Act. For regular city council or other regular city meetings (water and sewer, planning and zoning, parks and recreation and others), notice must be furnished to any-one who requests that information. An official notice of when and where your regular meeting will take place should be given to the local news media. For emergency or special called meetings, at least two hours notice must be given to the news media located in the county and any news media located elsewhere which have requested to be notified before emergency or special meetings.
The only time the city council may meet and exclude the media and the public is in executive session. Executive sessions are permitted only for the purpose of considering employment, promotion, demotion, disciplinary action or resignation of any public officer or employee. Actions discussed in executive session becomes legal only after the city council (or other governing body) ratifies the action with a public vote in open session. Meetings for the purpose of executive session still must be announced publicly. For example, “We are going into executive session to discuss the discipline of an employee.” You do not have to state the employee’s name publicly, however.
Unless the city attorney is being considered for employment, appointment, promotion, demotion or disciplinary action, then he/she may not meet in executive session with the mayor and city council. Likewise the city clerk, city recorder or town recorder should not be in executive session.
This has been a very brief discussion of a very complicated law. For further information, please refer to the Arkansas Freedom of Information Handbook (10th Edition) available from the League at 501-374-3484 or online at www.arml.org.