A bill that would all but destroy the public's ability to receive public records critical of the government has been approved by a State House committee.
The bill, HB 2419, sponsored by Representative David Stevens, a Republican from Sierra Vista, would allow government agencies to charge $20 an hour for their "labor" in locating and producing any records for public inspection.
State Attorney General Tom Horne supports the bill, despite Horne's ruling in December that such a system would hinder the public's access to government records.
The proposal would give the requester the first eight hours of labor for free, encouraging bureaucrats to use incompetent methods and delaying tactics in order to make more money.
Commercial uses of public records, like obtaining them from resale, already are subject to fees and aren't affected by this bill. HB 2419 deals with what have been deemed non-commercial requests under the law -- those that are made by regular people and the news media who want to find out what their government is doing.
At a stakeholder's meeting with Stevens on Tuesday, news-media attorney David Bodney characterized the proposal as a radical change to a century-old public-records law that happens to be one of the best in the country.
But supporters like the League of Arizona Towns and Cities and Yuma City Attorney Steven Moore argue that something needs to be done to fight crackpots who are filing too many records requests that tie up city staff.
Representative Stevens agreed this was the reason behind the bill. A Yuma resident who hits his city with dozens of records requests each year for questionable reasons was labeled at the meeting as the "poster child" of burdensome records requests.
Yet as Bodney pointed out, changes to the law to solve that "problem" aren't needed.
A 2009 opinion by the state Supreme Court says, "Public records requests that are unduly burdensome or harassing can be addressed under existing law, which recognizes that disclosure may be refused based on concerns of privacy, confidentiality, or the best interests of the state."
On Wednesday evening, the bill cleared the House Appropriations Committee on a 7-2 vote.
The heavy requester in Yuma, as New Times later learned, is Jack Kretzer, 78, a disabled, crotchety former engineer who lives on Social Security. He became involved in politics after moving to Yuma in 1998 and has run for various offices, including a campaign for state Senate as a libertarian in 2008.
A self-described "community ombudsman," Kretzer has been a cholla-barb in the side of the city of Yuma officials for a long time. A 2006 article says he filed 715 records requests in six years. As of this year, he's filed about 100 petitions with the city for things like abolishing the property tax, all of which failed.
A city administrator told a newspaper at the time that Kretzer had "succeeded in wasting a vast amount of employee hours and taxpayer resources" -- a comment that drew the ire of a person who supported Kretzer's activities, at least in spirit.
Kretzer has kept up the pace in recent years, asking city staff once or twice a week to give him records like minutes from city council meetings, staff e-mails, etc. On Wednesday, he denied burdening city staff members or harassing them. He says he doesn't always conduct a free inspection of records, as allowed currently under the law, and pays "hundreds of dollars" each year for copies of various records. (City officials tell New Times he's paid about $527 for copies in the past two years.)
"This is an ongoing battle" with the city, Kretzer complained, referring to Yuma City Hall repeatedly as the "Taj Mahal." "They don't bother to follow the existing law or city charter."
It's clear Kretzer's political activism is unfocused, begging the question of whether part of his intent is to harass the city.
Lynda Bushong, city clerk, says that Kretzer sometimes has to be prodded to inspect the records he's requested. He doesn't typically speak or show up at council meetings. What he learns from public records, he doesn't publish anywhere, (unless e-mail counts). If it weren't for Kretzer, Bushong says, the city of Yuma wouldn't have a problem with public-records requests.
City officials should be commended for their efforts in dealing with Kretzer's hard-to-read handwriting and e-mailed requests. They've accommodated his wheelchair and allowed him, like other citizens, to simply phone in requests for records.
But the one thing Yuma has never done is take the state Supreme Court's advice and cut him off, forcing him to sue.
Moore says he's worried that if the city loses and has to pay Kretzer's attorney fees, as stipulated under Arizona law, taxpayers would lose money. And there could be political ramifications, as headlines blared that Yuma was refusing to satisfy requests for public records, he added.
Moore says the city's desperate to do something.
Trouble is, the current proposal by Stevens is like using a nuclear bomb to get rid of a termite nest. There's going to be a lot of collateral damage.
Lengthy reports critical of an agency would be obtainable only by the wealthiest news-media organizations, and probably only then by putting down large deposits and up-front fees. Stevens and Moore acknowledged on Tuesday, in response to questions by New Times, that government agencies likely would estimate a cost to provide a public record and demand that it be paid before any work gets done -- otherwise, someone could still harass the agency by making expensive requests with no intention of paying the bill.
Another gaping problem with the bill is that it provides no recourse if you think the government agency is ripping you off. Under current law, you can sue in Superior Court if an agency denies your request. But with Stevens' proposal, a high tab for a request wouldn't necessarily be a denial.
Say goodbye to anything like "citizen journalism." Even professional news media organizations may find it too pricey to do the job they've always done, in the same way they've always done it. Favored news outlets that provide happy news would find their records requests handled quickly, for free. Watchdogging, on the other hand, would be a lot more expensive.
At least Yuma wouldn't have to deal with Jack Kretzer anymore.
We'll be keeping a close eye on this one as it wends its way through the Legislature. With any luck, the bill will die young.
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UPDATE: A friend sent us a link to story about Hawaii's public-records system, which charges high fees that prevent news organizations from obtaining basic information about the activities of elected officials: Hawaii's Public Records: High Fees Are Keeping Public Information Secret
Got a tip? Send it to: Ray Stern.