Local residents got the chance to learn more about the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act during a meeting Wednesday.

The Transparency in Government Group of Western Arkansas met at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the DoubleTree by Hilton in Fort Smith to discuss the Arkansas FOIA. The meeting was sponsored by Fort Smith attorney Joey McCutchen. Among those in attendance were public officials and those who are currently running for public office.

One of the featured speakers was Rob Moritz, professor of journalism at the University of Central Arkansas who said he spent about 15 years as a reporter at the state Capitol. He is also an appointed member of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act Task Force, which was created in 2017.

During Wednesday's event, Moritz talked about four bills the task force discussed during a meeting on Monday.

"What our panel does is recommend," Moritz said. "We have no power really to vote anything up or down. These were all ... FOIA bills that were filed in the 2017 (legislative) session, and because there were so many, and every time they brought one before the Legislature, there were so many people for and against them in committee meetings, the Legislature just decided to table them all and create a nine-member task force to go over the bills during the interim and also try to come up with some recommendations on what lawmakers should ... think about when they are debating an FOIA bill."

The task force started meeting in November. The members must have a report on the recommendations, as well as whether they endorse or oppose the various proposals that were tabled during the 2017 legislative session, completed by this upcoming November.

One proposal the task force voted to endorse during Monday's meeting was HB1225, which would repeal the FOIA exemption for tax records of hotels and restaurants. There were also three proposals the task force opposed. This included HB1622, which would have authorized government entities to take additional time of up to 15 days to produce records requested under FOIA if the request is determined to be unduly burdensome, HB1248, which would exempt data recorded by law enforcement body or dash cameras from FOIA if the data was related to an ongoing investigation by a law enforcement agency and HB1403, which would exempt traffic accident reports from FOIA for 30 days following the completion of the accident report.

Moritz said the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act Task Force will next meet in July.

Other speakers at Wednesday's meeting included McCutchen, Sebastian County Prosecuting Attorney Daniel Shue, Lt. Col. (Ret.) Jim Parsons, a former U.S. Army Green Beret and founder of the Bella Vista Patriots in Arkansas, and Robert Steinbuch, professor of Law at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s William H. Bowen School of Law, who spoke via telephone.