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Governor's office rebuffs idea of limiting Arkansas' FOI law

By The Associated Press

08.12.02

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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — An effort to add more secrecy to state government by broadening exemptions to the state's Freedom of Information Act in the name of homeland security has been shut down by the office of Gov. Mike Huckabee.

Jim Harris, the governor's liaison to the Department of Emergency Management, says Huckabee will not support efforts by the agency to exempt some records from public disclosure.

Harris sent an e-mail on Aug. 8 to department director W.R. "Bud" Harper, after attending a meeting of about 20 state and federal officials — the Arkansas Homeland Security Council — to discuss homeland security matters.

At the meeting, Harper had presented a draft of suggested changes to the FOI law. Harris' e-mail told Harper to drop the effort.

"I was shocked to see your presentation today on amending the Freedom of Information Act," Harris' e-mail said. "I had told you earlier to drop that idea. Since you did not, let me be clear on this: Your efforts to amend the FOI are NOT authorized by the governor."

The draft presented by Harper had called for some state agency e-mail and meeting records to be kept secret if deemed to jeopardize agency safety. Also exempted from disclosure under the draft would have been vulnerability assessments and infrastructure information for hospitals, schools, public utilities, airports and government buildings.

Harper said in March he would like to change the state's Freedom of Information Act to allow the department to keep confidential any information it receives of a potential terrorist attack.

David Maxwell, ADEM's deputy director, said the draft is better categorized as a "working paper" meant to stimulate discussion.

"This is not even a proposal," he said. "What we're doing is trying to see if this kind of thing is necessary."

He said the department has the responsibility to coordinate homeland security in the state.

"So we feel like it's our responsibility to at least broach the subject," Maxwell said.

But Harris said in the e-mail that "I speak for the governor on this matter. When you return from Dallas, I plan to sit down with you and discuss all legislation you plan for the coming legislative session to insure there are no more surprises for the governor."

The Aug. 8 meeting included representatives of the FBI, the governor's office, the state Health Department, the state police, the state Highway and Transportation Department, the Department of Information Systems, the state Military Department and the state Livestock and Poultry Commission.

The agencies discussed their security needs and the possibility of receiving up to $40 million in federal homeland-security money.

Maxwell said that, if the agency pursues the idea of amending the FOI law, it would seek comment from the Arkansas Press Association and others.

"This is not a journalism issue; it's a public-safety issue with us. The press that we deal with in Arkansas has always been extremely responsible," he said.

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