Requiring that all meetings of public bodies include time for the public to express concerns and introduce issues would make government more open and interactive, a state lawmaker contends.
“That’s what our government is,” said Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, who authored a bill that would require calls to the public. “It’s the ability for our citizens to go and interact with their elected officials.”
Along with Allen’s bill, which the Senate Government Reform Committee unanimously endorsed earlier this month, several pieces of legislation this session address public access to information. Some seek to promote government transparency, while others would withhold financial and identification information.
Allen said SB 1215 stems from constituent complaints of a “loophole” in state law that leaves public calls up to the discretion of governing bodies.
“State law says, ‘You may.’ It doesn’t say, ‘You shall,’” Allen said. “I’m trying to fix this so that my constituents will have the opportunity to interact with their elected officials.”
Several governing bodies, including the Apache County Board of Supervisors, have been criticized for not accommodating general public comments, Allen said. But she stressed that the proposed change would still allow bodies to control the timing and manner of comments.
Apache County Administrator Dewin Wengert said his county has always allowed the public to comment on agenda items but that concerns over time and scheduling have kept general comments out of meetings for several years.
“We have no problem with the public commenting at our meetings,” he said. “We would like to schedule time … to give them to comment on other items and give them time to comment in a more systematic way.”
Before voting in favor of the bill, Sen. Ron Gould, R-Lake Havasu City, warned that a mandate could disrupt legislative bodies and allow members of the public to speak on unrelated issues.
“A lot of what you see people speak on is not really relevant to what’s on the agenda,” he said.
Rod Ross, legislative associate for the County Supervisors Association of Arizona, said a small number of counties don’t have formal calls to the public.
“We feel it is an issue best resolved at the local level,” he said.
While Allen’s bill tries to lift the government veil, a bill authored by Sen. Michele Reagan, R-Scottsdale, would restrict public access to drafts of city audits.
SB 1153 would exempt working papers and unfinished reports used by city auditors from the public records law, bringing it in line with existing laws that protect state and county auditors from records requests.
Brad Lundahl, Scottsdale’s government relations director, said working papers and drafts often contain information that hasn’t been verified. The bill would ensure that information can’t reach the public until properly checked, he said.
“What public purpose does it serve to release those notes when you don’t even know if they’re legitimate?” Lundahl said.
But David Bodney, an attorney at Steptoe & Johnson and legal counsel to The Arizona Republic, said vague wording could create a shield for otherwise public reports by allowing officials to label them “drafts.”
On Tuesday, Bodney asked a Maricopa County Superior Court judge for an order requiring the city of Surprise to allow the Republic access to a draft audit detailing how the city spent $73 million. Surprise refused to hand over the audits after saying they weren’t “complete.”
The court can “reasonably infer that the city is aiming to release a ‘final’ report sanitized of embarrassing facts, while obstructing access to underlying records that may tell a different story,” Bodney wrote in court documents.
The addition of clarifying language to Reagan’s bill might help prevent this sort of abuse, he added.
Bodney also expressed concern over a bill authored by Rep. David Burnell Smith, R-Carefree, which would allow public officials to redact the identifying information of those who contact them through personal mailing addresses, computers, telephones or other personal electronic devices.
He said HB 2366 would allow public officials to censor contact information from communications even when they relate to public business.
“There are times when that would be private and there are times when that would be public,” he said. “Any bill that would allow them to redact that information is overly broad.”
State courts separated personal communications from public records in Griffis v. Pinal County, an Arizona Supreme Court decision that ruled personal e-mails weren’t necessarily public records, Bodney said. That case ensures that private communications remain private while business communications become public record, even when created on a personal computer.
After his bill was held in committee last week, Smith said he doesn’t expect the measure to pass this session.
“I might clean it up for next time,” he said.