Records secrecy a national worry - East Valley Tribune: News

Records secrecy a national worry

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Posted: Tuesday, December 21, 2004 5:00 am | Updated: 5:50 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

The secretive ways some Arizona school and law enforcement officials conduct public business reflects the behavior of many of their counterparts nationwide.

Public schools, police departments and sheriff ’s offices have scored low on public access tests from California to New Jersey in dozens of audits since 1992.

‘‘Results continue to be quite similar,’’ said Frosty Landon, who has tracked audits in at least 20 states as executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.

In Arizona, news organizations sent journalists to 119 local government agencies across the state on Sept. 14-16 to audit compliance with the state’s Public Records Law.

Auditors were instructed to identify themselves by name but not to volunteer the names of their employers or why they wanted the documents. The aim was to discern how an ordinary citizen seeking public records would be treated by

the agencies.

About half the agencies that were audited delayed release of the requested records, and nearly one in four failed to turn them over within a week or never provided them at all.

Nearly three in four police agencies and school offices — 69 percent and 68 percent, respectively — passed the test, compared with an 86 percent compliance rate for city and county managers’ offices.

Charles Davis, who leads the Freedom of Information Center at the University of Missouri, was not surprised. He said many municipal and state offices nationwide have made reforms when confronted with the results of the various audits — but not public schools and police departments.

‘‘What you see time and time and time again is that there are certain pockets of resistance when it comes to freedom of information, and these are mainly at education and law enforcement offices,’’ Davis said. ‘‘We can’t seem to change the culture in those institutions. They just seem to be inward and secretive.’’

School districts in Florida, for example, denied access to superintendents’ cell phone bills nearly half the time during a January audit that included visits to government offices in 62 of the state’s 67 counties.

During post-audit interviews, some superintendents said they didn’t see a reason to release the records.

At least one Florida superintendent cited heightened security concerns following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But when pressed, he could not explain how terrorists might use his cell phone records to launch an attack.

Almost 72 percent of Indiana sheriff ’s departments, meanwhile, refused to comply with requests for incident reports during a 1997 audit.

And more than a third of law enforcement offices in New Mexico denied access to crime reports in a similar 2000 study.

Davis said most freedom of information audits nationwide have attempted to simulate the experience of average citizens, which is important because journalists often receive special access to information that should be equally available to anybody.

‘‘Reporters are paid to obtain information,’’ Davis said. ‘‘They are professionals.’’

He said journalists know how to persist when government officials initially deny access to documents, but most other citizens do not. He said public officials know this and sometimes exploit the inexperience of people who do not understand the law.

‘‘When they get that stonewalling, I’m afraid — more often than not — they sigh and walk out,’’ Davis said.

In the Arizona audit, a few government officials made a point of asking project participants if they were reporters.

Auditors in other states have faced similar questions.

In a 2003 Maryland study, for example, project participants who identified themselves only as private citizens frequently faced rigorous questioning about who they worked for and why they wanted to see records that ranged from restaurant inspection reports to complaints against real estate appraisers.

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