'Sunshine Week' will begin under a cloud in Pearce's AZ

Our view: Press - meaning the public - has a right to question legislators
2011-03-13T00:00:00Z 'Sunshine Week' will begin under a cloud in Pearce's AZ Arizona Daily Star
March 13, 2011 12:00 am

The state Senate president, Russell Pearce, is limiting press access to lawmakers before and after working sessions in the Senate chambers. He has also declared that the public is forbidden at any news conference held in a hearing room within the Senate building.

The irony of these recent decisions is not lost, especially next week, which is designated as "Sunshine Week" by the National Society of News Editors. It's the time each year where news organizations focus on access to public information, government transparency and the need to defend press (read: public) freedoms.

By limiting access of the press and the public to elected officials and to how the business of the state is being conducted Pearce and his supporters in this overreach are taking a dangerous step that should draw the attention of every Arizonan.

Journalists must now wait for an invitation from a state senator before being allowed onto the chamber's floor. The impetus for this, according to news reports, is that some lawmakers were feeling put upon by television reporters approaching them at their desks and asking about the situation surrounding Republican Majority Leader Scott Bundgaard's altercation on the side of a Phoenix-area highway with the woman he was dating.

The Republican caucus met last week and decided to keep Bundgaard in his leadership position. So it makes sense that reporters - and the public - would want to know what his colleagues think about his alleged actions and suitability for leadership. And asking what other elected officials thought of Bundgaard's apparent use of the legislative immunity granted to lawmakers to avoid arrest (the woman was taken to jail) is entirely legitimate, as well.

It's a short jump between limiting press access to avoid questions about a colleague's behavior and manipulating the rules so that elected officials can successfully dodge questions about policy issues, voting decisions and any number of other matters that directly affect Arizonans.

Pearce disguises these access limitations under the cloak of decorum: The reporters have gotten out of control and are getting in the way at the beginning and the end of official business; members of the public are too rowdy at press conferences and need to pipe down.

These rules in reality insulate elected officials from the press and the public.

Say that a lawmaker doesn't want to comment on a vote he or she took, or a controversial statement made in a hearing. Refusing to answer a question when approached by a reporter can still look bad - what are you trying to hide by dodging the question? - but if the reporter can't even physically get near the lawmaker to ask the question, that's a different situation.

Rules that put distance between elected officials and the press and the public are antithetical to good government. These restrictions should be immediately removed. Lawmakers should accept that answering questions - even when they would rather not - is an obligation to the people they claim to represent.

Arizona Daily Star

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