When it comes to Arizona’s laws safeguarding the public’s right to know what government is doing, the people’s interest in fostering that right far outweighs the state’s interest in punishing a handful of filers suspected of frivolous action under those laws.
We wonder if a Maricopa County Superior Court judge’s decision last month will do more to inhibit legitimate efforts to seek public records than to sanction a northeast Phoenix woman and her attorney for allegedly filing a vexatious lawsuit.
Judge Michael Jones ordered Karen Taylor and her attorney, Suzanne Dallimore to reimburse the Paradise Valley Unified School District a total of nearly $26,000 of about $57,000 in legal expenses the district ran up to counter a lawsuit Taylor and Dallimore filed accusing the district school board of violating the Arizona Open Meetings Law.
As the Tribune’s Beth Lucas reported earlier this month, Taylor alleged the Paradise Valley school board had agreed somehow in private before an April open meeting to close Gold Dust Elementary School in northeast Phoenix.
Dallimore isn't easily given to frivolity. A former assistant attorney general, she successfully pursued Open Meetings Law violations by the Scottsdale Unified School District governing board in the late 1990s.
Jones said the case was motivated by “bad faith,” designed only to delay the school’s closure. Dallimore says she had 85 documents and evidence, including statements by board members, about the secret agreement. Dallimore’s demands for certain documents were turned down by the judge, who ruled the district had already provided what was available or in existence.
If the smooth machinery of government is, heaven forbid, slowed because a citizen reasonably questions its decision-making process, then so be it. While we all seek a more efficient government, we certainly would not trade our right to examine and criticize government workings in exchange for that efficiency.
We don’t know for sure yet whether Taylor’s suit has merit. Jones’ ruling pre-empted the public’s knowing that. The case is now on appeal. But judges should lean significantly toward the public’s overall right to have the door to the government hall open, with plenty of light allowed to shine inside.
Sanctioning scofflaws who file frivolous actions is not unimportant, but it pales significantly if it serves to chill the public’s full exercise of its right to know.