In honor of Sunshine Week, which is meant to shine a light on public access to governmental records, data and actions, we asked Star reporters to share some of their experiences covering Tucson.
There is a misperception that public records and public meeting laws exist only for “The Media.” It’s not the case. Journalists don’t have any more — or any fewer — rights than you. Every American has the right, and we believe the responsibility, to ask how governments at all levels spend our tax dollars, who finances campaigns, how decisions are made.
Public records and public open meetings laws allow us a window into our government. Here are a few examples of how Star reporters use these laws in practice, and the obstacles they’ve faced:
I’ll preface this by saying that my records relationship with Pima County has generally been a positive one. I get what I ask for within a reasonable timeframe far more often than not, which is what the law requires.
One notable exception was Pima County’s decision last year to deny my request for a report summarizing an investigation into workplace misbehavior allegations made against former Attractions and Tourism Director Tom Moulton. Several documents county officials later said were accidentally provided to me detailed allegations of harassing behavior, including a troubling account of Moulton screaming obscenities at an employee who then left the office “in tears.” Moulton retired several months after those allegations were made.
The county denied my request for the report on the grounds that its release could compromise the privacy of the small department’s employees, as well as undermine efforts to encourage reporting of bad behavior. I clarified that the Star did not object to the redaction of names, but the county was unmoved.
What was uncovered by the investigation? How far back did workplace issues date? Did the investigation partially or completely clear Moulton? Unless someone leaks that report to me (wink! wink!), we’ll likely never know. More troubling is the fact that the county’s position seems to be that the release of such reports is more difficult in smaller departments, given that identifying anonymous complainants would be much easier.
In my mind, that creates two classes of county departments: large ones where managers know their misdeeds may end up in the newspaper and another in which they can rest easy knowing that, while they may face professional consequences, the Star’s tens of thousands of readers will be none the wiser. Ultimately, I think that situation undermines the county’s commendable goal of ensuring a workplace free of harassment.
If you have access to this report or any other materials that document county wrongdoing, corruption or anything of substantial public interest, please contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Murphy Woodhouse
Covering federal agencies has its own challenges when it comes to having access to public records. Not only does it mean you can’t walk into someone’s office to follow up, but it usually takes a long time — sometimes a really long time.
Many of my requests regarding Customs and Border Protection information take a year or two. I was on a leave of absence last year when, just my luck, all of a sudden the requests I had submitted two and three years ago started to get fulfilled.
One particularly bad example was an information request I submitted to the Department of Health and Human Services regarding immigrant minors coming across the border without their parents. I was on vacation a few weeks ago when I got a call from someone following up to my request — which I had submitted in 2014. By this point, I had no recollection of what I was looking for. The man said he had recently taken over and was very nice, but four years!?
Recently, I’m getting “no records responsive to your request were found,” even when the agencies have provided precisely that information several times before. Unfortunately, there’s no single person I can call to get an explanation and they don’t respond to emails. Needless to say, an appeal is pending.
Usually, our best recourse is to try to find local agencies that might also have access to that information and try to go that route, but that’s not always an option.
— Perla Trevizo
Last year I got a call from a concerned patient of the Tucson VA hospital, called the Southern Arizona VA Health Care System, about a potential shortage of dermatologists there. The patient believed that too few skin specialists at the hospital was the reason why he experienced a long delay in getting a staph infection diagnosed, which he said led to a great deal of unnecessary pain and angst.
Long wait times at the VA have been in the news for years, and the story sounded like an opportunity to check out whether the VA was able to employ enough specialists to meet patient demand in Tucson.
When I asked VA spokesman Steve Sample how many dermatology specialists were employed at the VA, he referred me to an online database of VA health providers. But I soon realized the database was out of date: At least one of the providers listed no longer worked at the Tucson VA. Sample said I’d need to file a formal records requests to get the current names of dermatology specialists. But when I filed a federal Freedom of Information Act request, Tucson VA privacy officer Donna Wilson provided a list of four names — all of them completely blacked out.
She argued revealing the names would violate the providers’ privacy. “It is as likely as not that they would be contacted by the media as a result of this request,” she wrote in an email. Wilson also said military veterans would have to file their own records requests to find out what doctors worked at the VA.
So I filed my first federal Freedom of Information Act appeal, with the help of First Amendment Coalition of Arizona attorney Dan Barr. He helped me cite relevant caselaw and craft a powerful appeal letter, which argued, in part, that the VA was contradicting its justification for the denial by publishing its own public database of providers, even though it was out of date. The appeal was successful, and legal counsel for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs stated that public interest in the identities and qualifications of VA doctors outweighed their privacy interests.
Barr said at the time that the Tucson VA officials likely expected the Star wouldn’t have the time to fight their denial.
“I very much doubt the person who denied the request did any work to consider what the law was in the area,” Barr said. “A lot of public officials are counting on reporters not exercising their rights.”
— Emily Bregel
After a child dies or nearly dies in Arizona, it can be very challenging for reporters to get information about what happened. There are sometimes delays for legitimate reasons, such as a pending criminal case, but often it takes months for records from the Department of Child Safety to arrive. And once they do, they are usually so heavily redacted that it’s impossible to piece together what happened.
Reports from law enforcement are also heavily redacted sometimes, especially if the investigating agency is the Tucson Police Department, so that’s another challenging aspect of this process.
One way a reporter can work around this is by finding a relative who has the records on hand and is willing to share them. Other times, the story has to wait to be told.
— Patty Machelor
Tucson Unified School District's records office is generally responsive and its employees are helpful and pleasant, but some of the legal departments' decisions recently have erred too often on the side of secrecy.
In February, TUSD filed public records requests with local charter schools seeking student directory information to try and target parents who may be interested in having their kids attend TUSD. The Arizona Daily Star requested the exact same records from TUSD. Directory info would help reporters track down students affected by policies. But the district's attorney denied the request. There’s some hypocrisy in TUSD demanding from charter schools records they aren't willing to provide.
In another example, the district's decision to redact names from its former "blacklist" is on shaky legal grounds, too, according to public records experts.
And while the district deserves credit for willingly acknowledging the blacklist, some of the records the Daily Star requested were initially withheld, without explanation.
In another case, TUSD set a good example for other districts that were hesitant to respond to a records request from the Daily Star for school A-F grade from the Arizona Department of Education. Many districts were having second thoughts after the Board of Education called for an embargo. But TUSD held a news conference about their grades before the embargo. After TUSD released their scores, others followed suit.
— Hank Stephenson