Under Arizona law, all public records maintained by any state agency, town, or city are supposed to be open to citizens and available for inspection during regular business hours. Unfortunately, some people would suggest what the law says and what actually happens are two different things. I read an article today from a publication known as the Explorer, which covers areas north of Tucson in Pima County and surrounding areas. This publication contains an editorial about recent experiences with the Arizona public records statute. Public records should be public and according to the editorial, too often public documents contain incomplete information and do not help to keep our government open and honest.
According to the Explorer:
The Arizona open records law on its face is wonderful – it says all public records are to be made available at any time during business hours. But the reality is there are an estimated 500 exemptions to this broad law, plus there’re those pesky catchalls like “best interest of the state” that frequently puts the public and its government at odds over access to records.
The Arizona open records law has no teeth. A public agency can deny access to a record and the person requesting the record is left with no other recourse than suing that agency for the record. There is no middle ground and there is no penalty to the agency that denied the record if it’s later determined the record should have been released. The considerable cost of suing a public agency can be recouped, but only if a judge decides the reasons for withholding the record were “arbitrary and capricious.” That’s generally a gamble.
The public records statute should provide a safeguard for citizens to review and access information to better understand what the government does with our taxpayer money and resources. If this statute does not work, then perhaps something should be done to fix it. The legislature has an opportunity to pass legislation creating a public records officer with powers to issue subpoenas to ensure compliance with our public records law. Do you think that access to public records is an important right? Or do you think that public records access simply is a newspaper reporter tool which does not merit much consideration? I believe that if we do not have uniformity among our state, local and city agencies, the public records statute needs revision. Perhaps a public records ombudsman may help ensure uniformity to help make sure we know what our elected officials do with our money.