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Bills involving transparency include plan to put local government spending online

Requiring local governments to post records of all financial transactions online would make officials better stewards of the public’s money, a state lawmaker contends.

“There’s large sums of money and taxes being collected, and much of the time we don’t know exactly how it’s spent,” said Rep. Steve Montenegro, a Litchfield Park Republican. “Being that it is public money, people should be informed as to where it goes.”

Montenegro has introduced legislation that would force each city, town, county and school district to create a Web site with a comprehensive database of all receipts and expenditures. He said that such a site would allow taxpayers to learn whether a private contract went to the lowest bidder, for example.

H2282, which has won committee approval and is heading to the House floor, is one of several bills this session dealing access to government records and proceedings. Others include a proposal to allow officials to remove information identifying senders of e-mail messages and another that would require public bodies to post notices of public meetings conspicuously on their Web sites.

Montenegro’s bill follows a 2008 law that required the Arizona Department of Administration to create a public Web site by 2011 logging the use of state money. Montenegro’s bill would require local governments to follow suit by 2012.

Dan Guerin, communications associate for the Goldwater Institute, an advocacy group focused on limited government and free enterprise, said that type of Web site would enhance open government.

“Citizens ought to have the same access to data that everyone in the city does,” he said, citing multiple lawsuits the Goldwater Institute has filed seeking records from cities. “Everything ought to be online.”

But Ken Strobeck, executive director of the League of Arizona Cities and Towns, said the bill’s cost to local governments would outweigh the potential benefits.

“Ask yourself, ‘What’s the problem we’re addressing?’” Strobeck said. “My understanding is that it’s transparency, but posting every financial transaction, every receipt in and out … I don’t know how that actually helps anyone understand how their government is functioning.”

The estimated total cost of creating the state’s site is $740,000, according to the Department of Administration.

Rep. Anna Tovar, a Tolleson Democrat, said she understands Montenegro’s intent as far as increasing transparency but voted against the bill in the House Government Committee because it amounts to an unfunded mandate.

“In this crucial budget crisis, local governments shouldn’t have the burden of these costs,” she said.

Montenegro said cities and towns should be able to cope.

“If someone’s collecting hundreds of millions of dollars, I find it really hard to accept the ‘We can’t afford it’ argument,” he said.

Among other bills involving public access to information:

H2387:, authored by Rep. Tom Boone, a Peoria Republican, would allow public officials to remove a sender’s name, address, telephone number and e-mail address from any e-mails deemed public records before disclosing them.

David Bodney, a media attorney with the Phoenix law firm Steptoe and Johnson LLP, said the bill is too broad and would remove essential information about who public officials communicate with.

“The name of the sender is essential to the public’s ability to monitor government activity,” Bodney said. “It would be a huge mistake to allow public officials to routinely remove that information.”

Boone didn’t immediately return a phone call seeking comment Feb. 9.

H2209:, authored by Rep. Michele Reagan, a Scottsdale Republican, would require all public bodies to post conspicuous notices of all public meetings on their Web sites.

Strobeck, with with the League of Arizona Cities and Towns, called that proposal unnecessary for his constituency.

“All of the cities and towns that have Web sites already do that and have laws governing us to do so,” he said.

Reagan didn’t immediately return a phone call seeking comment Feb. 9.

3 comments

  1. I definitely agree with Attorney Bodney. Allowing public officials to remove information from an email before releasing it would not be in keeping with the intent of allowing access to government records.

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