GOP wants transparency, but evicts reporters - East Valley Tribune: News

GOP wants transparency, but evicts reporters

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Posted: Monday, March 16, 2009 4:26 pm | Updated: 1:03 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

For the first time in nearly 50 years, reporters will not have work space in the state Capitol after July 1. During a news conference to announce bills to make government more transparent, Senate President Bob Burns also said Republicans will be taking over the press room in the Senate building. Senate Majority Whip Pamela Gorman, R-Anthem also defended the practice of lawmakers meeting in small groups to discuss the budget, outside the public eye.

“Are you suggesting that this is a reality show and there should be a camera on my back at all times?”  Gorman said.

For the first time in nearly 50 years, reporters will not have work space in the state Capitol after July 1.

Senate President Bob Burns said Monday he is not interested in finding new space for reporters after Republicans take over the Senate press room. Burns wants that room for Republicans to have their caucuses, meetings of party members to discuss policy and pending legislation.

And Burns said he is not interested in providing space for reporters in any of the other rooms that will be opened up once the caucus room moves from its second floor location. He also said he is not interested in trying to provide space for reporters who cover the House and Senate in the adjacent Old Capitol building.

"We have needs for the space," he said.

Burns' statement came at the end of a news conference where he and other Senate Republicans used "Sunshine Week" to detail what they say they are doing to make government more transparent to the public. That unofficial week, pushed by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, is designed to educate the public about the importance of open government and freedom of information.

The list of bills introduced includes requiring the state, counties, cities and towns to have searchable databases of receipts and expenses, a new requirement for posting of open meeting notices on the Internet and making it illegal to provide false information or withhold information from public officials, boards or commissions.

There has been a place for reporters to work since the House and Senate chambers were constructed in 1960, according to Rep. Jack Brown, D-St. Johns, elected to the Legislature in 1962.

Reporters have been in the same room on the first floor of the Senate since the late 1970s.

About a decade ago, amid concerns about subsidizing private operations, the Senate began charging rent based on the equivalent cost of Class A office space. For the number of square feet for a work space in the common press room - area for a desk and file cabinets - the rent this year is $77 a month per reporter.

Burns said the Senate lacks the space to accommodate the approximately one dozen reporters who cover the Legislature on a full-time basis.

He had served eviction notices on reporters in late November, effective at the end of the year, because of the desire to use the press room on the first floor for Republican caucuses. Burns agreed to requests by editors to delay any forced move until at least June 30, or whenever the legislative session ends.

But until Monday, Burns and his staff had left the door open to either finding other space that would become available in the Senate once others were moved into the no-longer-needed second floor caucus room or, in the alternative, vacant offices on the fourth floor of the Old Capitol.

Burns said neither of those are an option and that reporters who cover the Legislature will need to find their own offices in private buildings.

The Senate president's announcement was only part of what came up during the Sunshine Week news conference.

Senate Majority Whip Pamela Gorman, R-Anthem, defended the practice of the GOP majority of bringing small groups of lawmakers into offices to discuss what should and should not be in the budget. Those small meetings get around any Open Meeting Law requirements which normally would require the Republicans, who make up a majority of the Senate, to meet in the open.

"Are you suggesting that this is a reality show and there should be a camera on my back at all times?" Gorman said. "There are times I have conversations one-on-one with a member. Do you want to go to lunch with me? Do you want to go to the bathroom with me? I don't know where you want to go."

And Gorman said the Open Meetings Law - which the Legislature actually exempted itself from - is designed to ensure the public has access to meetings where a majority of the members of the body are present and actual decisions and votes can occur.

She said the meetings of leadership with only a few members at a time is designed "to get their feedback," saying it is no different than when a reporter meets with a publisher.

Nor was she dissuaded by a question pointing out the differences.

"No, you're not public officials," Gorman said. "But, as you know, the decisions you guys make about what to write affect the public."

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