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Media, lawmakers agree to public records law changes

State lawmakers and the media have worked out a deal that spells out when government agencies can deny requests for public records.

The deal announced Tuesday would add language to existing laws which generally allow individuals to demand to see and copy any government documents. In essence, it would say that such requests can be rebuffed if they are “unduly burdensome or harassing.”

Attorney Chris Moeser, representing KPNX-TV in Phoenix and the only person who testified when the issue came up Tuesday at the Senate Appropriations Committee, said his client can live with that language. Moeser, a former newspaper reporter, said the change essentially spells out in statute what courts already have ruled.

The original version of HB2414 would have allowed government agencies to charge not only for the actual copies, something already permitted, but also for any labor necessary for finding the documents and making those copies. But it would have exempted the first four hours of labor from a charge.

Rep. David Stevens, R-Sierra Vista, said some communities have to deal with what he believes are abuses of the state’s Public Records Law.

“We’re getting requests that are taking three, four or five days,” he told Capitol Media Services when he introduced the measure, with some governments having to hire additional staff to comply. Stevens said HB2419 preserves the right of the public to inspect documents while not becoming a financial burden on all taxpayers.

That did not fly. So Stevens tried a different tactic: allowing requests to be ignored if they do not “identify the requested records with reasonable particularity” and the request “cannot be narrowed or reduced to a manageable degree.”

Moeser told lawmakers on Tuesday that was no more acceptable.

“The language … simply gives the public body too much discretion to deny a public records request,” he said. Moeser said allowing a bureaucrat to say that a request is not specific enough “gives too much leeway when there already are situations where public bodies are denying public records requests.”

The measure approved by the panel Tuesday actually does not reflect the deal. But Sen. Don Shooter, R-Yuma, who chairs the committee, said he has been assured the final version will be altered to conform to the agreement when it next goes to the full Senate.

While the measure gained unanimous committee approval, Sen. Rick Murphy, R-Peoria, said he remains concerned that nothing in the measure defines exactly when a request is “harassing.”

The legislation does retain other provisions of the Public Records Law, including the right of those denied access to sue. That law also allows courts to award legal fees and other reasonable costs to the person denied the records.

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