Scarp: We should be concerned when officials withhold public info - East Valley Tribune: Phoenix & The Valley Of The Sun

Scarp: We should be concerned when officials withhold public info

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Posted: Thursday, September 11, 2008 7:34 pm | Updated: 8:49 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Another simple request by a reporter to see a public document was delayed by the Scottsdale Unified School District, not due to spite, due to policy.

It's hard to figure out which is more frustrating. And, as an old axiom in the news business goes, access delayed is access denied.

The document was a health inspector's report regarding what happened after the water was shut off for a day at an elementary school.

Pretty important stuff, you'll agree; neither was tantamount to asking about Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's private life or the tabloid media chasing former Sen. John Edwards around a Beverly Hills hotel, but about a matter of straightforward local concern.

We journalists are constantly advancing the public's right to know, and its cousin, the right to access.

This rankles people in government and out who don't think some things should be publicly available.

To this we reply, well, then, you're welcome to change the law, but right now as it's written, those things are quite publicly available.

You can't know anything unless you have access to knowledge, goes our view.

And when you're paying with your tax dollars for that information to be considered, written down and stored somewhere in a public building, you should naturally have the right to read it over for yourself.

'BUT WE MIGHT BE SUED'

Folks in government, though, often work quite hard to counter that assertion, as clear as it appears to be. The more forthright are worried about national security, and while that can mitigate matters at times, we're talking about the local school district here, and none of the leaders of the Axis of Evil have threatened our campuses lately.

Sometimes less than forthrightly, though, folks quite a bit below the level of the CIA or the Pentagon in the government chain think that it's more important that they be protected from remotely possible lawsuits than to give the public and press what they ask for.

The Scottsdale district behaved this way more than a year and a half ago when its former legal counsel advised school board members not to reveal to anyone who asks - usually reporters but also parents - how they might vote on an upcoming issue.

It was as stupid as it sounds.

But it took an opinion of the state attorney general and the Legislature to pass a law clearly spelling out that it was all right to talk to a reporter about an upcoming vote for most of the board members to finally feel comfortable with doing what is clearly their duty in a representative form of government.

Last week, Tribune reporter Mike Sakal wanted a copy of a Maricopa County health inspector's report on conditions at Sequoya Elementary School during a waterline break Sept. 4.

District Assistant Superintendent David Peterson and district spokeswoman Marijke Van Fleet told him the report was in their possession, but they couldn't let Sakal have it.

When I talked with Peterson on Thursday, he said he wanted to give it to Sakal, but was reminded that the district's policy was that requests for public records must be made in writing, then considered by the district's lawyers, before they could be released.

Sakal said he finally got the document Tuesday, well after he needed it for his story published the previous Saturday.

'TRUST, BUT VERIFY'

Peterson said he had assured Sakal that school workers had rectified all of the violations regarding the school's sewer and refuse disposal system the county inspector had outlined by the end of that day, and the water was able to go back on. The inspector assured him that an unsanitary situation had not occurred, Peterson said.

The report, once Sakal had it, still detailed seven violations that, even though they existed for only one day, might be of considerable interest to a parent or taxpayer concerned about the welfare of children. But Sakal didn't get that public document, and for several days you didn't get to know any details beyond Peterson's account.

What we have is Peterson's word for it, and even though he has a reputation for trustworthiness, we in the media are in the business of what President Reagan once quoted the Russians as saying, "Trust, but verify."

When it takes several days over a weekend to do that, you're not quelling public concern very much. And verifying waits.

This may sound to you like so much inside baseball, another chapter in the tug of war between those who seek to know and those who have the knowledge. But when the knowledge at issue is important to the public, it goes beyond disagreements between a few journalists and a few government officials.

The rest of us should be concerned, and on occasion, outraged, when access is denied.

The question is, will we look up long enough from lipstick-on-a-pig stories to care?

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