Back in June 2016, Tucson journalists were demanding public records from Pima County Supervisor Ally Miller, prompting other supervisors to declare their support for transparency.
“We shouldn’t make this into more of a political thing than it needs to be,” Supervisor Richard Elías said at the June 21 meeting. “These are public records that are supposed to be available. ... They need to be released as quickly as possible.”
At the time, we were embroiled in FalkenGate. Or maybe we should call it the Arizona Daily Herald Imbroglio. It was the situation in which a part-time Miller staffer, Timothy DesJarlais, set up a news website and started asking questions of Miller’s opponents, posing as a character named Jim Falken.
Reporters at the Star and other news outlets demanded records from Miller and her staff, looking for clues as to whether Miller and DesJarlais had worked together on the aborted news effort.
The ensuing months have shown that, when the target of the requests is not Miller, the county response is not uniformly passionate in support of transparency. And Miller herself may be harming the cause of transparency through sweeping requests.
Perhaps the most evident case of this arose in my colleague Murphy Woodhouse’s coverage of the sudden departure of county tourism director Tom Moulton. Woodhouse requested all documents resulting from an investigation of workplace-harassment allegations against Moulton.
We know there was an investigation, and we know a detailed report was written about it, but the Pima County administration denied the request. They said keeping the document private is in the best interests of the county because releasing it would potentially discourage future victims of workplace harassment from reporting it.
Of course, victims’ names are routinely blacked out in reports by police and other government agencies, and the county could have done so in this case. But instead, county officials decided the department was so small that the victim could be identified anyway.
Legally, it was a questionable denial. It feels, to this 22-year veteran of many records requests, like an effort to keep the county’s dirty laundry out of the public eye. But it leaves us with the option of suing the county, which is of course costly and never a sure bet. We pick our battles.
Which brings me to Ally Miller’s public-records requests. Last year, during FalkenGate, reporters used public-records law to force Miller and staffers to release emails and messages written about county business using private email and Facebook accounts.
After seeing the power of the law, Miller made sweeping requests of her own in an apparent effort to find out if county officials had conspired with reporters to expose the Arizona Daily Herald incident. To give you a flavor, this is just the beginning of just one request, which was also made to the three other supervisors. Miller requested the county hand over:
“1. Any and all emails sent or received by Supervisor Ray Carroll and any and all members of his staff, including but not limited to Jennifer Wong, associated with their government email accounts, including all attachments and metadata, from May 1, 2016 to July 13, 2016.
“2. Any and all emails sent or received by Supervisor Ray Carroll and any and all members of his staff, including but not limited to Jennifer Wong, in which Pima County government activities were conducted or discussed, from any and all private email accounts of Supervisor Carroll and his staff, including all attachments and metadata, from May 1, 2016 to July 13, 2016.
“3. Any and all emails sent or received by Supervisor Ray Carroll and any and all members of his staff, including but not limited to Jennifer Wong, from July 1, 2015 to July 13, 2016, on any and all email accounts, including all attachments and metadata, that contain any or all of the following keywords: Timothy DesJarlais, Arizona Daily Herald, Daily Herald, Herald, Jim Falken, Falken, Dylan Smith, Dylan, Jim Nintzel, Nintzel, Joe Ferguson, Ferguson, Mari Herreras, Mari, Herreras, Arizona Daily Star, Tucson Weekly, Tucson Sentinel, Sentinel, Explorer, Marana News, Foothills News, Desert Times, Inside Tucson Business, Ally Miller, Miller and/or District 1.”
I admit to being a little hurt that my name wasn’t listed there. But more importantly, the requests were absurdly large in their sweep. No journalist I know of makes requests like this. Our requests tend to be targeted as narrowly as possible because we don’t want to give the government officials a reason to say “no”.
Yet the county said “yes” to Miller’s massive requests last year, and so now she’s back with a new one, related to the recent Facebook post in which she stated her pride at being white:
“I would like to request any and all copies of verbal and written communications, including but not limited to emails, social media accounts, phone calls and letters from anyone; including members of the public, all county employees, County administrator, any and all elected officials, communications department employees, County attorney office employees, as well as each and every one of the Board of supervisors members related to the request for the opinion you just issued regarding my comments on a facebook post. Please consider this a public records request from July 1, 2017 to present date.”
Again, it’s a sweeping request seeming to seek evidence that county officials conspired to publicize a mess she got herself in.
She has the right to ask, but it is overly broad. How, for example, is the county government supposed to provide copies of verbal communications? They vanish into the air once spoken.
My fear is that this sort of abuse of the public-records law will engender denials, which will embolden the county to issue further denials to more legitimate requests, like the one they issued in the Moulton case.