Pinal County Superior Court Judge Kevin White needs to send a strong message that no Arizona city can conspire with powerful interests to hide public information in violation of state law.
White is expected to rule in the near future on whether to release a study by Florence related to its failed attempt to buy a private water utility serving 20,000 customers in the Johnson Ranch area. The utility's owner, Scottsdale-based developer George Johnson, has demanded that the court never allow Florence's study to see the light of day.
We're still baffled as to why there's been any delay about releasing a study that Florence spent $308,000 to complete. The city relied upon this document to offer $190 million to buy the water utility. The offer was rejected and the deal fell through, but any reasonable policy would insist that the public be entitled to see the research details behind a local government's desire to spend such a large sum of money.
Indeed, the very purpose of Arizona's public records law is to guarantee that studies, memos and other records used to justify government spending are open and available for independent review at all times. Such transparency empowers every person to be a watchdog protecting our tax dollars and to figure out when government officials are relying on bad information or unsavory motives.
Johnson has claimed the study is filled with unique, secret information about his business practices that should be protected. The judge should be highly skeptical of this. Private water utilities are state-sanctioned monopolies that automatically should be subject to a higher level of public scrutiny. Any proprietary information in the study will be limited in scope and easily could be blacked out without withholding the entire document.
The judge also shouldn't be swayed by the fact that Johnson paid Florence $219,000 after negotiations had fallen apart, officially to cover the cost of the study. No one should be able to control the public's access to government information and to manipulate state law if that person or business throws enough money around.
Florence officials say they want to release the study. But their sincerity is suspect after they struck a deal with Johnson to warn him when someone asked to see the study, allowing Johnson's lawyers to hightail it to court and "stop" the city from making such a disclosure. That's why the Tribune has become a party to the legal case.
The utility study should reflect Florence's best understanding of water capacity and future supplies for the surrounding area. The public is entitled by law to see such valuable information.