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Bill to Bring State Public Records Law Into 21st Century Gets Sidelined

A bill that would've brought Arizona's public-records law into the digital age has gone into sleep mode.

Elizabeth Hill, (pictured), state public-records ombudsman, says the League of Arizona Towns and Cities launched a late lobbying effort this week and had the bill scuttled for this year's legislative session. She doesn't know which city or cities were behind the move.

Hill says she has meetings planned with government officials this summer to talk about reviving the proposed law for next year.

The great thing about the proposal is that it would require governmental agencies to release information in electronic formats -- something that rarely happens now. 

The problem is that all government agencies store much of their information electronically these days, yet Arizona's law is still paper-based.

That often means that if you ask for an Excel spreadsheet document, an e-mail or a digital photo, you'll receive a more costly and less useful printout.

The reason: Information is power, and bureaucrats want to keep that power for themselves.

The bill also would strengthen public records law, emphasizing that public officials cannot charge the person making the request for the time needed to review and strikeout text from the records.

The law already disallows such charges, but government officials routintely try to foist them on the public, requiring more legal clarification. That aspect of public-records law could thwart an attempt by Maricopa County leaders to charge County Attorney Andrew Thomas and Sheriff Joe Arpaio for the voluminous requests they made of the county. However, the courts have already ruled against massive, whimsical requests such as those made by Thomas and Arpaio in regard to Superior Court records, which seems to reduce their chances of winning the county case.

Here's the part of the bill that refers to electronic records:

IF THE CUSTODIAN MAINTAINS PUBLIC RECORDS IN AN ELECTRONIC FORMAT, THE PUBLIC RECORDS SHALL BE AVAILABLE FOR INSPECTION OR COPYING IN THE FORMAT DESIGNATED BY THE REQUESTING PERSON IF THE PUBLIC BODY MAINTAINS THE PUBLIC RECORDS, INCLUDING DATA AND INFORMATION MAINTAINED IN DATABASES IN THAT FORMAT.

THE CUSTODIAN MAY TRANSFER ELECTRONIC RECORDS TO A MORE PROTECTED FORMAT BEFORE DISCLOSURE OR USE PROCESSES TO ENSURE THAT THE INFORMATION PROVIDED IS SECURE.

THE CUSTODIAN MAY IMPOSE A REASONABLE FEE FOR PROVIDING ELECTRONIC COPIES OF PUBLIC RECORDS.

THE FEE SHALL BE LIMITED TO THE ACTUAL COST OF REPRODUCING THE PUBLIC RECORD AND THE COST OF THE MEDIA USED TO DISTRIBUTE THE PUBLIC RECORD. IN ADDITION, THE CUSTODIAN MAY IMPOSE A REASONABLE FEE FOR THE ACTUAL COST ASSOCIATED WITH RESPONDING TO CUSTOMIZED SEARCHES AND AD HOC REQUESTS FOR DATA MAINTAINED IN DATABASES IF THE LABOR ASSOCIATED WITH SEARCHING, SELECTING AND FORMATTING THE DATA REQUESTED EXCEEDS TWO HOURS.

IF THE CUSTODIAN DETERMINES IT IS NOT FEASIBLE TO PROVIDE ACCESS TO ELECTRONIC RECORDS FOR INSPECTION, THE CUSTODIAN SHALL PROVIDE A PAPER COPY OF THE PUBLIC RECORD OR INFORMATION REQUESTED AT NO CHARGE FOR INSPECTION ONLY.

ANY PAPER COPIES RETAINED BY THE REQUESTING PERSON ARE SUBJECT TO A COPYING FEE.

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IF THE CUSTODIAN DETERMINES THAT PROVIDING ELECTRONIC COPIES OF PUBLIC RECORDS IS NOT FEASIBLE, THE CUSTODIAN SHALL PROVIDE A PAPER COPY OF THE PUBLIC RECORD OR INFORMATION OR A COPY IN ANOTHER MEDIUM THAT IS ACCEPTABLE TO THE REQUESTING PERSON AND MAY IMPOSE A REASONABLE COPYING FEE.

IN ADDITION, ON REQUEST, THE CUSTODIAN SHALL PROVIDE THE REQUESTING PERSON WITH A WRITTEN EXPLANATION AS TO WHY IT IS NOT FEASIBLE TO PROVIDE AN ELECTRONIC COPY.

IF THE REQUESTING PERSON REQUESTS PAPER COPIES OF ELECTRONIC RECORDS, THE CUSTODIAN MAY IMPOSE A REASONABLE FEE THAT IS LIMITED TO THE ACTUAL COST OF PRINTING.

THE CUSTODIAN MAY PROVIDE COPIES OF PUBLIC RECORDS IN A FORMAT NOT MAINTAINED BY THE PUBLIC BODY, CREATE A PUBLIC RECORD OR CONVERT PAPER PUBLIC RECORDS TO ELECTRONIC FORMAT AND MAY CHARGE A REASONABLE FEE FOR DOING SO, INCLUDING A FEE FOR PERSONNEL TIME.

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