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Municipal Utility Customers’ Addresses Subject To FOI, Court Rules

LITTLE ROCK — Municipal utility customers’ home addresses are subject to release under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act, the state Supreme Court said Thursday.

In a 6-1 decision, the court overturned a Monroe County circuit judge’s ruling that Brinkley Water and Sewer Department did not have to release the address of a ratepayer in response to an FOI request.

Jon Hopkins had requested the address, phone number and payment history of a Brinkley resident, and the utility had responded with information from which the resident’s address was redacted. The utility said providing a customer’s address would conflict with its identity theft prevention program, which it was required by federal law to adopt.

A circuit judge upheld the utility’s action, ruling that the information it provided was sufficient to satisfy the purpose of the Freedom of Information Act.

A majority of the Supreme Court justices disagreed, saying the courts cannot create an exemption to the FOI law where the state Legislature has not created one.

“It is the job of the General Assembly to establish exemptions under the FOIA, and arguments for additional exemptions must be addressed to the General Assembly,” Chief Justice Jim Hannah wrote in the court’s majority opinion.

The majority also said the question of whether releasing the information to Hopkins would be consistent with the FOI’s purpose of giving voters access to information about the actions of public officials was irrelevant.

“The FOIA does not direct itself to the motivation of the person who seeks public records,” Hannah wrote in the opinion.

Justice Cliff Hoofman noted in a dissenting opinion that Arkansas law does make the addresses of the employees of public utilities exempt from the FOI law.

“Given that the General Assembly exempted from disclosure the personal contact information of employees of these public utilities … it defies logic and common sense to conclude that this same information concerning a public utility’s private customers was intended to be disclosed under the act,” Hoofman wrote.