Tue, April 07

Open & Shut<br>Access to public records 'a delicate balance' in Arizona

If such bills come up, they are likely to be assigned to the Public Institutions and Rural Affairs Committee and/or the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee in the House and the Senate's Government Committee.

In the House, that puts chairmen Jim Carruthers, R-Yuma, and Jeff Hatch-Miller, R-Phoenix, in key positions. Hatch-Miller in particular has been following privacy and public access issues related to computerized records. Tempe Democrat Harry Mitchell has the same role in the Senate Government Committee.

Hatch-Miller said he views access to information held by the government as a delicate balance between the public's right to watch what its government is doing and an individual's right to privacy for their personal information.

"What would reasonable people want to protect from open and easy public scrutiny? This is a question of our time," he said. "Privacy is of concern to the public."

Apart from their committee assignments, several legislators have demonstrated a keen interest in this area.

Last year, Sens. Scott Bundgaard, R-Phoenix, and Chris Cummiskey, D-Phoenix, sponsored a bill that would have prohibited courts from sealing settlement agreements in lawsuits related to allegedly defective products or other matters of public safety.

Their bill was a response to secrecy agreements that for years hid details of settled lawsuits involving failed Firestone tires.

The bill died amid criticism that it might expose a company's financial data and proprietary information its competitors.

Sen. Brenda Burns, R-Glendale, led the charge against the bill and has been an advocate of business interests on many issues.

All three lawmakers are likely to play prominent roles during debate on any bill related to public access to records.

Two other legislators who automatically have a say in the outcome of any proposal are House Speaker Jim Weiers, R-Phoenix, and Senate President Randall Gnant, R-Scottsdale.

Their leadership positions carry the power to decide to which committees a bill is assigned. They can send bills they like to friendly committees and those they don't to committees where they are likely to fail or to a long series of committees, which makes the process so hard the legislation is unlikely to survive.

Gnant was instrumental in the creation of an Internet site where people can track bills and find other information about the Legislature. He wrote an 84-page book on the legislative process in Arizona and organized a training session on the open records law for senators last year.

Since he became speaker last year, Weiers has made changes in operations that make it easier to learn what is going on. Last year, Weiers began releasing floor calendars that gave the public a more accurate picture of planned action than his predecessor.

The final player in this process holds the most direct, individual power in the outcome of any proposed legislation. Gov. Jane Hull can sign a bill into law, let it become law without her signature or reject it with a veto.

Hull has been a proponent of using technology to give the public greater access to government services and information. As a result, Arizona ranked fifth in the nation in the Progress and Freedom Foundation's Digital State Awards for use of technology by state governments.

Open & Shut: An explanation of the project

By The Associated Press

Open & Shut, the Arizona public records access project, is the result of a six-month effort by media organizations around Arizona.

Organized by Associated Press Managing Editors of Arizona, the audit's goal was to find out how a citizen would be treated when testing the key provision of Arizona's Public Records Law: "Public records and other matters in the custody of any officer shall be open to inspection by any person at all times during office hours."

Nineteen media organizations and the journalism schools at Arizona State University and the University of Arizona teamed up to conduct the audit. Dozens of journalists and journalism students spent the week of Oct. 22 requesting documents from Nogales to Page, from Clifton to Bullhead City, from Yuma to St. Johns.

Police agencies around Arizona refused nearly half the time to hand over public records dealing with crimes in a test of how local government agencies follow the state's Public Records Law.

In one city, police logged a "suspicious person" report and ran a computer check to see if an auditor had any outstanding warrants. In another, an auditor was taken into a private room by a police chief wanting to know the purpose of the visit. One auditor was told initially that obtaining police records might cost $1,000.

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