The Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys’ Advisory Council, a statutorily created body made up of county prosecutors and other law enforcement figures, doesn’t want reporters listening in on their public meetings.
The group is required to abide by the Arizona open meetings laws, but for the past few meetings it pulled from its agenda the call-in number for the public to listen in telephonically, while keeping the number on the meeting notice that is sent to members of the council.
That’s because members of the council have been accurately quoted in stories in the Arizona Capitol Times talking about strategies to kill bills that attempt to reform the practice civil forfeiture.
An email chain shows that APAAC has been worried about the media calling into their meetings since September 2015. That is when reports ran in the Capitol Times and its sister publication, The Yellow Sheet Report, based on a discussion in which prosecutors said they weren’t worried about attempts to reign in civil forfeiture because former House Speaker David Gowan wasn’t going to let the bill go up for a vote.
The email chain shows Kim MacEachern, APAAC’s then-lobbyist, sent the Yellow Sheet article to Navajo County Attorney Brad Carlyon.
He asked: “How did they get the information?”
MacEachern responded that the reporter was listening telephonically to the public meeting. Carlyon asked if former Pinal County Attorney Lando Voyles, who was quoted extensively in the piece, knew a reporter was in the public meeting. MacEachern said that the APAAC staff member who usually monitors the phone line was gone, but even if the monitor had been there, there was no way to tip off Voyles, who also called in to the meeting.
“We should eliminate the phone option in my view as they are on to us and can stalk. If people had to appear by video or in person we would at least know the weasel was there,” MacEachern wrote.
Carlyon was clearly upset about the quotes in the news reports.
“S***! S***! S***! We’re going to screw this fight up between the AG and his off the cuff comments and Lando’s politicking and talking as frankly as he did at a public meeting,” he wrote in response. [Editor’s note: The expletives in Carlyon’s email were spelled out.]
MacEachern then warned Carlyon not to say anything embarrassing via email, and confirmed that the reporter had to have been on the call, since the meetings aren’t taped or posted online.
“Prolly should beware of email traffic tho,” she said.
Elizabeth Ortiz, APAAC’s executive director, sidestepped the question of whether the decision to keep the call-in number off of the council’s agendas was a response to reporters listening to the meetings.
“I think it’s simply the council looking at the open meetings laws, saying, ‘What does it require us to do?’, and going in that direction,” she said.
But she did hint that members of the committee were upset that a reporter called in, but didn’t announce it.
“If somebody calls in as a member of the public, are they required to announce when asked if they’re on the phone, are they required to participate? What’s your opinion on that?” she asked.
Open meeting laws do not require any member of the audience to announce their presence or names.
The issue arose after APAAC held a meeting today to announce that their meeting had been canceled because the group didn’t properly notify the public of the open meeting.
The improper public notice stemmed from APAAC excluding not only the call-in number for their meetings, but the physical address where members of the public could go to listen to today’s meeting.
The vast majority of members of APAAC call in to the meeting, rather than driving to Phoenix to attend in person.
Ortiz said the agenda for today merely contained a “typographical error” and that although they issued a revised notice, they did so too late to comply with the law’s 24-hour notice requirement.
“We try to be as transparent as we can. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. We had a typographical error. Now we’re just trying to make sure we learn from it and do better,” Ortiz said.
But Ortiz also said that the council will, in fact, be cutting off the call-in line to the public – if their attorneys agree the open meetings law doesn’t require them to provide a call-in number.
That’s an open question, according to Dan Barr, an attorney with Perkins Coie and expert on open meetings laws.
Barr said the meeting appears to be conducted by phone, and if the public can’t access that meeting other than by attending in person, it’s questionable if the open meeting law has been satisfied.
“If the meeting is a telephonic meeting, and the only way most people can attend is by phone, then I would say having that call-in number is a vital part of the open meetings law,” he said.
Still, he said if there is a physical location where the public can go to listen to the telephonic meeting, then that may comply with the law.
Ortiz said she had suggested to the group’s chair, Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk, that today’s meeting be canceled because they hadn’t complied with the open meeting law.
But the meeting still happened and several people on the line were talking about Republican Rep. Eddie Farnsworth’s bill to require more transparency in civil forfeitures, and awaiting the telephonic arrival of Polk, who then told attendees that the meeting would be canceled.
The public notice for their Monday, March 19, meeting, at which they also discussed strategies for killing Farnsworth’s bill, listed an address for attendees to listen in to the call-in meeting in person, but no number for the public to listen telephonically.
The public notice issued for today’s meeting didn’t even include that, noting only that “APAAC will hold a telephonic meeting open to the public.”