LITTLE ROCK (AP) — The chairman of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission apologized Thursday for trying to impose restrictions on the release of certain public records, although he said he still thinks some agency information should be kept private.
Commission Chairman Craig Campbell read a letter of apology to the legislative committee that oversees the agency’s operations. In it, he took personal responsibility for "bad judgment" in a proposed plan to circumvent parts of the state’s Freedom of Information Act and promised not to pursue similar changes in the future.
The Game and Fish Commission was primed to vote on the extensive proposal, which would have, among other things, allowed the agency to keep "embarrassing" information private, extend the time for responding to records requests from three to 10 days and to withhold disclosure of the names of people who hold state hunting and fishing licenses.
Rep. Bobby Pierce, D-Sheridan, the chairman of the oversight panel, said he appreciated the contrition but scolded the commission at the end of the meeting.
"You also answer to the people of Arkansas," Pierce said. "They have a way of slapping us and letting us know" when officials have stepped out of line.
Even after Gov. Mike Beebe and Attorney General Dustin McDaniel attacked the proposal last month and the commission said it was no longer under consideration, panel members said they still wanted to see added restrictions.
Beebe said the state public records law is clear and applies to all agencies. He earlier threatened to cut off tax funding for the commission if members continued to pursue the proposed restrictions.
"I trust they know where I stand," Beebe said Thursday.
Rep. Robert Moore, D-Arkansas City, who will be House speaker when the Legislature convenes in January, said he was satisfied with the posture of the commission.
"I accept (Campbell’s) statement at face value," Moore said.
Campbell said he hopes the Legislature creates an exemption to allow the commission to withhold information about where endangered species reside to keep the public from visiting those areas. He used the example of the ivory-billed woodpecker sightings several years ago in east Arkansas, which drew a tremendous amount of attention.
Campbell said in his letter that he "misspoke" about the measure’s intent, but in October the proposal received a recommendation for passage from the three-member Governance Committee of the Game and Fish Commission. The measure was to have been voted on at the commission’s regular meeting in November.
Commissioner Emon Mahony, chairman of the Governance Committee, declined to comment Thursday about the origin of the proposal.
"I’m through with FOI, unless I get called into court," Mahony said.
That could happen. Former commission chairman Sheffield Nelson has sued the panel, arguing that the commission underwent an illegal restructuring that funneled power to Campbell, Mahony and Commissioner Rick Watkins. The three comprise the commission’s Governance Committee.
Nelson said in a phone interview Thursday that the commission is still working to skirt the Freedom of Information Act by trying to deny him access to documents he wants for his lawsuit.
"Actions will speak louder than words," Nelson said.
Nelson said he is willing to forego depositions and other pretrial proceedings and let a judge decide the issue as a matter of law.
The Game and Fish Commission has a Tuesday deadline to respond to the lawsuit, which Campbell said the panel would defend vigorously.
Nelson has called for Campbell, Mahony and Watkins to resign, which the three have said they won’t do.
Watkins and Mahony did the talking for the commission after state officials began registering their outrage over the public records proposal. Before the measure was yanked, Mahony said the commission planned to "get input from all the people who have a voice in it and make a decision in November."
Campbell had the lead role Thursday.
"I’m the chairman of the commission. It happened on my watch," Campbell said after the meeting. "... It certainly wasn’t a trick play."