STATE SECRETS

WOODS AND SYMINGTON HAVE SOMETHING IN COMMON, AFTER ALL: BOTH DISCOURAGE OPEN GOVERNMENT

Last week, the Arizona Press Club presented its first-ever Brick Wall Award to Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods, because he tends to ignore the state's Public Records Act.

Governor Fife Symington finished a close second in the competition, which was judged by a committee of print reporters and editors.

The dubious awards, designed "to recognize public officials who brazenly flout the state's Public Records Act," will become an annual honor, according to Press Club board members.

The winners received handcrafted wooden plaques bearing miniature brick walls. John Fearing, executive director of the Arizona Newspaper Association, attended the ceremony on the Capitol Mall and praised the Press Club for its efforts at "educating the people of Arizona" through the dubious award.

"Woods and far too many other elected officials are expending significant staff time--and tax dollars--fighting to keep the press and members of the public from viewing records that are owned by the taxpayers," says Jeremy Voas, who chairs the Press Club's Public Records Committee.

In honoring Woods, the Press Club cited the example of the Tribune Newspapers' hard-fought efforts at getting public records from the Attorney General's Office. When a Tribune reporter asked to examine AG phone records, Woods cried, "Privacy!" even though the calls were made on state time from state phones. When the Tribune routed its request through the state's Department of Administration, Woods wrote to DOA, warning officials not to release the phone records.

After a month, the Tribune finally received the phone records, but not before the documents had been heavily edited, the Press Club reports.

In another instance, the Tribune requested documents pertaining to Arizona's $85,000 share of a federal antitrust settlement that had been given to the Mesa Chapter of the Boys and Girls Clubs of the East Valley. The Tribune reported that Woods gave the money exclusively to the Mesa club, which had named a new building after Woods. Woods claimed the money was given to the Boys and Girls Clubs of the East Valley, which had in turn given it to the Mesa club. After a month of repeated requests, Woods' office finally released the documents, which proved that the Tribune's reporting had been accurate.

Symington was named runner-up because his office "routinely ignored records requests," according to the Press Club. He was also cited for his staff's attempt to gut Arizona's Public Records Act in the recent legislative session. A Symington-sanctioned amendment--which never made it out of committee--reads: "If a person makes a request to examine or copy public records and the public body believes the request is abusive or harassing, the public body may seek a protective order from a Superior Court. If the Superior Court grants the protective order, it may award the public body legal costs, including reasonable attorney fees."

"This amendment would have provided public officials with a ready excuse to deny or delay virtually any public-records request," says Voas, managing editor of New Times. "Fortunately, calmer heads prevailed, and this amendment was killed."

The Press Club also recognized Pima County Attorney Stephen D. Neely and the Phoenix Police Department for their poor performance in providing public records.

On the flip side, the Secretary of State's Office; the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department; the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, particularly Jessica Funkhouser; and the Phoenix Fire Department were cited for their "professional compliance and cooperation."

Upon learning of the award, Woods issued the following written statement: "I am unavailable for comment."

Symington was out of town, but a gaggle of Press Club members and reporters hand-carried the governor's plaque to his office on the ninth floor of the executive tower. En route, they bumped into the governor's press secretary, Doug Cole, and chief memo writer, Chuck Coughlin, in the elevator.

Although he was carrying a copy of the New York Times, Cole didn't appear too happy to see the reporters. When presented with Symington's plaque and asked for his comment, he replied, "Huh?"

Coughlin said, "I wish they'd invested as much journalistically as they do in their awards, monetarily."

Press Club officials say the two plaques were produced for $12.

 
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