Are records only 'public' in theory? - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

Are records only 'public' in theory?

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Posted: Friday, September 17, 2004 5:59 am | Updated: 5:02 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

The Arizona Public Records Law might as well be kept in the Abu Ghraib prison for all the abuse it takes.

Consider this week’s developments.

Item 1 — Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio met with Scottsdale Unified School District Superintendent John Baracy on Thursday.

They discussed the previously undisclosed details of the heroin sting that resulted in 16 arrests last month.

It took more than three weeks for the sheriff to provide the most basic details, such as the fact that the busted kids are former students, not current ones.

Item 2 — Scottsdale released the job performance evaluations of former officer Kevin Baxter on Monday.

Baxter is the off-duty cop involved in a high-speed possible DUI crash that crippled a Maricopa County sheriff's deputy in May.

It took four months and a lawsuit by the Tribune before the city complied with the law and released the reviews.

Both the sheriff’s office and Scottsdale should have provided the information the first time anyone asked. The open records law spells it out:

“Public records and other matters in the custody of any officer (of a government body) shall be open to inspection by any person at all times during office hours.”

In the heroin matter, school officials had a few questions after Arpaio’s PR SWAT team assaulted the media with proclamations of busting a heroin ring in Scottsdale schools on Sept. 23.

Baracy and other school officials wanted to know how many of the heroin users and dealers were actually students. They wanted to know which schools they attended.

The users and dealers turned out to be "recent" or "former" graduates equally distributed between three high schools.

The superintendent said he told Arpaio that he was upset that the sheriff kept silent for nearly a month. Baracy said Arpaio responded that his office should have shared that information immediately.

Gee, Sheriff, really think so?

In the Baxter matter, city officials initially refused to honor formal public records requests submitted by the Tribune for the job reviews. The city's attorneys cited privacy interests and the best interests of the city.

Those considerations should not have made a whit of difference. Scottsdale officials were required to abide by the law without discretion.

In the end, deputy city attorney Deborah Robberson released the job reviews because, she said, Baxter consented to the release. His feelings should not have made a whit of difference, either.

So here's the sequence: The city refused to release public documents. It assigned salaried attorneys to defend the position. Then it released the disputed documents before reaching trial.

So public records are public only to people with attorneys and time.

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