Strong-arm of the Law

Law enforcement lobby imperils bill that would create a list of government records sealed from the public's view

Each legislative session, Arizona lawmakers pore over thousands of pages of impossibly complicated bills, eventually wading through the technical language and past the nagging lobbyists to pass hundreds of laws.

But now a two-page bill designed to simply cross-reference all exemptions to Arizona Public Records Law--without changing public policy--is stuck in the House Government Operations Committee for the second year in a row.

House Bill 2076 is one of the most straightforward pieces of legislation around, according to its sponsor, Representative Ned King, Republican of Litchfield Park, and its primary supporter, the Arizona Newspaper Association (ANA).

ANA lobbyist Jim Skelly testified, "This thing is so crystal clear that no one who has gone past the fourth grade should have trouble understanding what it means."

Today, scores of exemptions to Public Records Law are scattered throughout the Arizona Revised Statutes. King and the ANA say that makes it difficult for the press and the public to figure out what public documents they cannot legally access. It also makes it difficult to keep track of new exemptions added by the Legislature.

So cross-reference them, they say. Simply repeat the exemptions in one place in the law books, so people can easily find them.

Simple, right? Wrong, say opponents--mainly law enforcement agencies--who hate the bill but have had difficulty explaining just what the negative impact would be.

They have, however, raised enough doubt in legislators' minds to force King to hold HB2076, rather than bring it before the Government Operations Committee (which he chairs) and risk the bill's death.

HB2076 was first heard in committee last month. King assigned it to a subcommittee for further review when it became obvious the ANA and law enforcement couldn't resolve their differences. The debate continued in subcommittee--without any resolution--and the subcommittee refused to take a position on the bill before returning it to the committee.

On February 7, King held the bill in committee after more contentious comments from both sides. He expressed frustration that the differences still had not been settled.

ANA and law enforcement representatives accuse one another of intransigence.
Representative David Armstead, Democrat of Phoenix, sits on both the Government Operations Committee and the aforementioned subcommittee. He says, "In my political experience, it's a very simple bill, and people become very suspicious of very simple bills."

Even after all of the testimony, Armstead is not sure where he stands.
One of the biggest points of contention: When do you start listing exemptions?

HB2076 would list all exemptions to the Public Records Law enacted by the Legislature beginning September 1, 1996. The original version of the bill, introduced last year, would have made the list retroactive--all exemptions in the statutes would have to be found and listed. But lawmakers and opponents argued that would be too time-consuming, so this year the ANA proposed that the list begin in the future--with the hope that eventually the existing exemptions would be catalogued and listed, too.

Now opponents argue that the bill would mislead the public by listing only future exemptions.

ANA executive director John Fearing calls the argument empty, a political stall tactic. He says law enforcement--which yearly asks the Legislature to seal more records from the public, usually successfully--doesn't want to give an inch in its ongoing struggle with the press over access to information.

After a year, Fearing says, he still doesn't know what law enforcement's true opposition to the bill is.

He says, "Until the police get off the dime and tell us why they're really afraid of a list of statutes that are not public record ... there's not much that we're going to be able to do."

Eric Edwards has spoken repeatedly against the bill, on behalf of the Phoenix Police Department and Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police. He refuses to publicly clarify his position, telling New Times, "I don't want to go into a great amount of detail because this is something that still could come up and I don't want to comment on anything that we may have to address out at the Legislature."

Captain T.W. Conner, government liaison for the Arizona Department of Public Safety, told the HB2076 subcommittee, "I'm confused. I think you're confused."

He asked, "What's broke?"
Ed Wren represented the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association and Arizona Highway Patrol Association in opposing the bill. Armstead says he has received correspondence from anumber of cities, including Phoenix, opposing HB2076.

The Arizona School Boards Association also hopes the bill won't pass. Its lobbyists, Tom Pickrell and Barbara Robey, wrote to legislators, "We find the language of this bill very ambiguous and are having difficulty assessing what school districts would be required to do with their records if it were to pass."

The law would not require school boards to do anything.
Fearing suspects law enforcement has lobbied groups like the School Boards Association to oppose the bill. He and ANA lobbyists Jim Skelly and Phil McDonnell are frustrated.

They've tried to counter law enforcement's arguments, but with little success. Skelly told the subcommittee the bill is no Trojan horse. "There's no hideous motives, there's no insidious plot," he said.

McDonnell confronted Eric Edwards in the hallway outside last week's committee meeting, and accused him of being dishonest in his objections to the bill and hisclaimthat he wants to come to an agreement. The two exchanged heated words.

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