Wed, April 08

Editorial: Government transparency an absolute necessity

Government transparency is an absolute necessity if we are to control the government rather than have the government control us.

Public records ensure government transparency. If government records are allowed to be hidden from public scrutiny, the citizens lose control and the government increases its authority over us. 

That's why we should adamantly oppose a bill introduced in the Arizona Legislature this session. House Bill 2383 is designed to limit the public's access to certain police records and make it more difficult for an individual who sues the government for public records to recoup his legal costs if he wins. The bill aims to discourage us, the taxpaying public, from scrutinizing the actions of the people we are paying to work on our behalf.

According to The Associated Press, "House Bill 2383 would prevent the public from accessing crime photos of any victim or any minor - whether a victim, witness or convicted criminal - unless a court decides the public interest outweighs the witness' or victim's right to privacy. It would prevent the public from accessing any personal identifying information of a witness of any age unless the witness agrees to it in writing or a court orders it disclosed."

Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, said he introduced the bill at the request of the Maricopa County Attorney's Office in order to protect crime victims and witnesses. However, despite claims of the bill's good intentions to protect crime victims' privacy, even the Maricopa County Attorney's Office says that hasn't been a problem.

"We haven't been challenged in decisions that we've made here to protect the identity of victims and witnesses in those types of records," County Attorney's Office spokesman Jerry Cobb told a Phoenix news organization. "But we want the legal certainty that we have recourse to take those types of decisions to have a judge evaluate if in fact we are ever challenged."

Law enforcement agencies already have the authority to redact certain information from police reports if it might imperil an investigation. So, on its surface, the bill is designed to address a problem that doesn't really exist.

However, if it's passed, it will require this information to be hidden, making it more difficult for individuals and the news media to access records that could expose incompetence, corruption or other criminal activity on the part of public officials.

Another goal of the bill is to make it almost impossible for an individual who sues a government agency over Public Records Law violations to be reimbursed by that agency for legal fees if he wins. 

Attorney Dan Barr, a public-records law expert, spoke to the AP of the chilling effect that would have on the public's access to public records. "This provision makes it far more daunting for anyone to file a public records lawsuit.

You can be totally right and win and it will still cost you $20,000, $30,000, $40,000 in fees," he said.

Lawsuits are among the few weapons the public has to hold public officials accountable for their actions. 

In August 2008, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio lost a lawsuit over public records to the West Valley View, an independent newspaper based in Avondale. Barr represented the newspaper. Altogether, that court fight cost the newspaper over $30,000.

If the publisher knew that he would be out over $30,000 even if he won the case, he never would have filed the lawsuit and Arpaio would still be withholding information vital to the safety of the people living in his office's jurisdiction.

One of the public documents Arpaio withheld from the newspaper was a press release about a pedophile stalking schoolchildren in a local school district.

The purpose of the bill is to protect the government from the people, and that's not how government in the United States is supposed to work. We, the people, are supposed to BE the government.

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