Just a couple of months ago, Attorney General Tom Horne issued an opinion that made public records more accessible and cheaper for the public.
Thanks in large part to Star reporter Carli Brosseau, who has been pushing the access issue along with others, Horne concluded that the public may inspect records without charge if they don’t request copies, and may also scan or take photos of records such as police reports for free. Brosseau’s persistence also convinced Sahuarita to drastically cut what it charges for police reports, CDs and other records this month.
Now the pendulum is poised to swing back.
Horne himself is supporting a bill — HB 2419, introduced by Sierra Vista Republican David Stevens — that would give governments a new tool for charging the public for public records. The bill says that government agencies may charge $20 per hour for their labor once they’ve put in eight hours of work fulfilling a records request.
I asked Horne’s spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, about the bill, and she told me about fulfilling a recent records request from a news organization. Pulling the records alone took eight hours, then she and attorneys needed to go through and redact non-public information. It seemed sensible from where she sits that the government recoup some of that cost.
But if you go into this a little deeper, you’ll see this bill sets up a dangerously abusable new obstacle between the public and its records.
“These records belong to the public,” said David Bodney, an attorney who has represented the Star and other news organizations on public-records issues. “These people are custodians of the record. It’s not something for which the public should bear a special tax.”
The public would have no way of knowing whether the agency actually spent eight hours on a search, leaving that threshold open to abuse, he said. Also, members of the public without the deeper pockets of some news organizations could be “priced out of the market.”
The bill apparently was inspired by a Yuma gadfly who frequently barrages that city with records requests, causing employees to spend a lot of time and effort on responding. But Bodney pointed out that a 2009 Arizona Supreme Court ruling has provided a remedy for these situations: “Public records requests that are unduly burdensome or harassing can be addressed under existing law, which recognizes that disclosure may be refused based on confidentiality, privacy or under the best interests of the state.”
This looks like another legislative solution to a nonexistent problem, or, to put it another way, a way to wrest defeat from the jaws of victory.
The national news attention on Arizona over SB 1062 led some journalists to ask the question: What is up with Arizona?
The main answer provided by writers at the New York Times and Washington Post was Clean Elections. Our public-finance system, which we passed in 1998, allows lesser or more extreme candidates to get into office by giving them the campaign cash to compete with candidates who can raise money on their own.
“Part of the super-weirdness of Arizona politics appears to be the result of the state’s 1998 public-financing law, which provided tons of matching funds to unwealthy-but-energetic candidates from the social right at the expense of the pragmatic upper class,” Times columnist Gail Collins wrote Wednesday.
The attention of the Post and Times prompted a backlash by the Public Action Campaign Fund, a group that advocates for public financing of campaigns. Executive Director David Donnelly noted: “The three main sponsors of SB 1062 — Sens. Nancy Barto, Steve Yarbrough, and Bob Worsley — DID NOT PARTICIPATE in Clean Elections in 2012. In fact, the state’s leading business group, the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, endorsed all three in their last election.”
That notwithstanding, experts such as Arizona State University’s David Berman, a senior research fellow at the Morrison Institute, say clean elections really is a key factor in the progress of wedge-issue bills through the Legislature.
“There’s no doubt that there was a concerted effort on the part of the more socially conservative types to take advantage of clean elections,” Berman told me. “It gave an opportunity to free themselves from the business Republicans. Once it happened, the Chamber of Commerce, most of these groups lost their hold.”
That trend is ending, Berman noted, because in 2011 the U.S. Supreme Court voided a key part of the Clean Elections law. Previously, the law provided publicly financed candidates with funds matching those their opponents could raise privately. Now, candidates are given a set amount for a given race.
GOP state Sen. Al Melvin — to cite a timely example — will get $750,000 for his primary-election campaign for governor if he can first get 4,500 $5 donations. On the off chance he wins the primary, he’ll get $1,130,424 for his general-election campaign.
Of course, another key factor is the primary electorate. As long as the more ideological members of the parties, especially the GOP, are who show up for the primary elections, they’ll have rightfully won the right to elect their favored candidates.
Some residents of SaddleBrooke were not pleased with my saying in Sunday’s column that Melvin “may still charm some SaddleBrooke seniors,” even though I carefully planted that fudge word, “some.”
Nancy Bowersock was one of several who made the point, saying in an email: “I wish you and other columnists in the Star would not paint all residents in SaddleBrooke with an Al Melvin paintbrush. Yes, he’s a bit on the slow side and, yes, he has the narrowest of conservative views, and yes, he’s an embarrassment for those of us of the liberal persuasion, and yes, he lives in SaddleBrooke. We all don’t think like him.”