Florence must turn over public records about Johnson Utilities that could give the public a better idea of how the utility operates.
Pinal County Superior Court Judge Gilberto V. Figueroa on Tuesday ordered the town to produce the documents in response to a motion by the East Valley Tribune seeking the records under the state’s public records law.
The Tribune took legal action in a case between Florence and Johnson Utilities after being denied access to the $308,000 taxpayer-funded study, which analyzed the company’s viability for purchase by the town.
The company, which is one of the largest private utilities in the state, serves more than 20,000 people in the booming unincorporated areas south and east of Queen Creek and parts of incorporated Florence.
Residents there have lodged numerous complaints with several state agencies over water quality and wastewater issues.
Johnson Utilities had initially argued that the records couldn’t be released because the company had filed for a restraining order preventing their disclosure. Under the agreement with the town, Johnson would be tipped off to any public records request and could intervene to prevent the release.
The Tribune’s attorneys maintained that outside agreements to shield public documents is something that is simply outside the bounds of the state’s open records law.
“These behind closed-door, small town politics aren’t going to fly,” said Craig Morgan, the Tribune’s attorney. “The law has been very clear in Arizona for years. You cannot supplant public records law by entering into a side agreement or a confidentiality agreement.”
Oral arguments were heard Tuesday by Figueroa, who told the Tribune’s attorneys he was the former town attorney for Florence. The Tribune’s attorneys were not notified in advance of the hearing and Morgan was forced to argue the case by phone.
“They’re required to tell me when it’s going to be,” Morgan said. “I had no clue.”
A court assistant for the judge said it is each individual law firm’s responsibility to call into the court’s office and uncover pertinent information related to ongoing cases.
Morgan, however, said that it would be impossible for an attorney to predict all the twists and turns of the case. He said that it was the first time his office had not been notified before oral arguments — an important part of the case.
“I certainly don’t think it was intentional,” he said. “But I’m not going to call the court every day about each and every case.”
Still, “At the end of the day we got exactly what we came to get,” Morgan said. “Some of it (the study) will be redacted, some of it was ordered not to be disclosed but a lot of it will be disclosed.”
Morgan said maps and pictures of Johnson Utilities facilities will not be disclosed because they can’t be redacted.
He expects to receive a copy of the court transcript this week and then the court will issue an order to Florence to release the records.
“We’re not going to get any proprietary information but we may need to fight them on what they say are trade secrets,” Morgan said.