February 25, 2005
Arizona residents should be able to seek free advice from a new state expert on whether they should be able to see a government record, a Senate committee decided Thursday.
The Senate Government Committee approved SB1499 to spend $185,000 to create a special office that would help the public understand its rights under the state’s public records and Open Meetings laws.
Previously, sponsors had proposed creating an Office of Public Access Counselor to serve as a mediator between a government agency and someone seeking records or information from a meeting. Indiana has had a similar state agency for a decade.
But Sen. Barbara Leff, R-Paradise Valley, convinced other lawmakers that Arizona should hire an adviser to deal with requests only from residents, not government officials, similar to the existing state agency ombudsman.
"The cities and public agencies usually have plenty of people on staff to help them," Leff said.
The bill’s author, Sen. Dean Martin, R-Phoenix, said some backers want to ban governments from suing people who ask to see a record, and that those agencies should be allowed to get advice from the public access counselor.
Critics have claimed governments file such lawsuits to discourage people from demanding information, but officials have defended legal action as their only avenue to get a clear determination if a record should be available to the public.
Martin dropped the second proposal for now, and is calling for a two-year legislative study instead. As amended Thursday, SB1499 says a special committee would review how government agencies are complying with the law on open records and open meetings, and suggest possible improvements.
The changes approved Thursday also could make it harder for a public access adviser to determine if specific records should be released. Martin said he needs to work on additional amendments to make it clear the adviser can obtain questioned records and review them privately.
Otherwise, government agencies won’t share records with the access adviser, Martin said, making impossible to form an opinion about how the law applies.
The public access adviser would be a lawyer, but the office’s legal opinions couldn’t force any agency to release records. A resident would have to go to court if the agency still denied a request.