Your right to know is at risk.
The fact that Casa Grande city officials would say their new $1.5 million police and fire department computer system is working fine, when it hasn’t been able to produce a media report in weeks, is an indicator of how little concern they have for public records.
And they’re not alone.
The Pinal County Sheriff’s Office hasn’t produced a report in months as they transfer to a new system and process for providing public information.
PCSO officials are asking for patience, but in discussions it is clear they see the process more as an inconvenience than a responsibility.
Many public officials see the news media pursuit of public records as just something we do for our own selfish motives. When in reality we do it to provide information you have every right to.
If your young daughter regularly plays in a neighbor’s yard, then you have the right to know if that neighbor has been arrested for child abuse.
If you drive a certain stretch of road, then you have every right to know when, and how many, fatal accidents have occurred on that stretch.
And if a school board fires a superintendent, then you have every right to know about it and ask why.
This is why public records are important to us. Because they are important to you.
It is ironic in the age of the information revolution in which technology has made it easier to communicate with one another, we are seeing more and more abuses by public officials trying to conceal information or conduct the public’s business in secret.
And Freedom of Information experts expect access to public information to get worse.
“What we’ve seen is an increasing level of secrecy at all levels of government really developing over the past 20 or 30 years,” said University of Arizona journalism Professor David Cuillier.
Cuillier and Eric Newton, innovation chief at the Arizona State University Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, recently co-authored a Knight Foundation study on public information.
One of the biggest takeaways is that members of the news media comprise only 5 to 16 percent of public records requests across the country.
“This is about America’s ability to know what’s happening within its government,” Cuillier said in a radio interview in March. “Every person has the ability to go down to the town hall and find out what’s happening in their neighborhoods (and) look at public records.”
But what if the public records aren’t accessible through traditional means?
With the expansion of electronic communications, you can now have public officials conducting the public’s business through emails, phone texts, twitter and Facebook posts.
It is important to have a process where such public records are truly public. And the first step is making sure the public officials know such communication is public.
That is why we are serious about obtaining private emails by Casa Grande Union High School District Governing Board members who used them to conduct the public’s business.
Many of the discussions now occurring through electronic communications by public officials should be limited to public meetings. This expanding use of social media and mobile communications by public officials outside the chambers has to stop.
Writing for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, media attorney Dan Barr said: “Since the Arizona Public Records Law mandates that ‘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,’ the law creates a presumption in favor of immediate access to the documents.”
It appears some public officials need more public education.
Andy Howell is assistant managing editor. He can be reached at email@example.com or 520-423-8614.