National Sunshine Week comes to a close today, as newspapers across the country have been discussing why we must insist government officials keep their meetings and record files open to public inspection.
Free societies quickly disappear when governments can get away with hiding information and operating in secret. Arizona has one of the more sweeping open records policies in the country, and today we take a look at how the the law works for you.
Who can request public records in Arizona? Under state law, anyone can see a public document regardless of whether that person is a taxpayer, a state resident or even a citizen of this country. Such records should always be available for personal inspection during a government office’s normal business hours.
You don’t even have to tell the government official why you want to see the record, although you might be expected to explain if you have a personal interest or if you plan to use the information as part of a business venture.
Which government records can you see? In Arizona, all government documents are consider public unless a specific exemption is spelled out in law. Unfortunately, the Arizona Legislature has been swayed at times to erode our legal protections, and more than 100 exceptions are scattered throughout the statute books. But the courts have a ruled a government official can’t use an exemption to lock away all related files from public view. Governments are expected to examine each file and exclude only that information that is clearly exempted by law.
Generally, you have the right to see property records, formal petitions for government action, official memos and minutes of government business and finance information. You don’t have the right to see school files of individual students, police reports for ongoing investigations, and personal information about government employees such as medical records.
How soon can I get a record? The law requires a government official to respond “promptly,” but doesn’t set any specific deadlines. The issue may depend on the age of the document and where it is stored.
What will it cost? Unless you want a public record for a commercial purpose, you should be able to review a document at no charge. State law allows governments to charge a “reasonable” fee only if you want your own copy of the record. Copying charges vary significantly from agency to agency.
What happens if the government won’t show me a public record? Arizona’s law biggest weakness is our only legal recourse in this situation is to file a lawsuit, which can take time and lots of money.
But you have some informal options as well. Find out why the records keeper won’t release a document. There might be a compromise where you can receive the information you need, even if you can’t look at every record on file.
If that doesn’t work, get a hold of a top administrator or an elected official in charge of the agency involved. Sometimes, people in these positions have a better grasp of the critical value of open government, and will help you shine a light into the dark corner you are trying to reach.