Arizona bureaucrats could earn cash by stalling requests for public records under an amended bill sponsored by a Republican state lawmaker.
More ominously, the proposal by Representative David Stevens, a Republican from Sierra Vista, has the potential to destroy Arizona's stellar open-records law by making the cost of obtaining records too high for the news media and public.
The bill would allow Arizona government agencies to charge fees for public records "that includes reimbursement for the cost of labor in furnishing the copies, printouts or photographs, calculated in hourly wages."
HB 2419 was formerly a technical correction on a tax law before the strike-all amendment. A hearing on the bill is scheduled for Thursday at the state House of Representatives' Committee on Technology and Infrastructure.
Stevens aims to make a fundamental change to a decades-old law that specifically prohibits agencies from doing what he believes they should do. The ability to inspect records for free is a provision upheld as recently as December by state Attorney General Tom Horne.
"The purpose of Arizona's public records law is to allow members of the public open access to inspect public records during regular office hours," Horne wrote in the December 2nd opinion. "This purpose would be hindered by imposing fees..."
(Commercial public-records users -- who, for example, want to re-sell bulk government records -- still have to pay various fees. Citizens and news-gathering organizations are considered "non-commercial" users under Arizona law.)
Horne's opinion, based on a state Court of Appeals ruling, further states that the public can make their own copies of records with cameras or electronic scanning devices, thwarting (in theory) government agencies that prefer to charge stiff fees.
It seems that someone in state government didn't like Horne's opinion. We'd tell you why Stevens is doing this and who's behind his efforts, but he didn't return the message we left Wednesday morning.
Stevens' bill suggests no limits or exceptions on the alleged labor to be done, or the hourly wages to be charged. If this goes through, expect to pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars in so-called "labor" costs from bureaucrats and their high-priced lawyers.
The bill does say that agencies may not charge for the first four hours of "labor." But since it places no oversight or restrictions on how much labor can be done on any records request, the four-hour grace period is a moot point. For smaller government agencies, this could become a prime income source.
Once, for example, Police Chief Steven Campbell of El Mirage wanted to charge us more than $200 for a single CD that had a few digital copies of police reports on it. (These were some of the reports detailing how the El Mirage police department and the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office had dropped the ball on investigations of sex crimes.)
Citizens requesting requesting police reports from El Mirage are still being swindled. As El Mirage PD's online records form states, the agency charges up to $15 per report and $20 to make a copy of a photograph.
We called the police department and asked them if we could simply take pictures of public records instead of paying a fee. "Maria," one of the office workers at the police department, told us, "You won't be getting anything for free."
Town officials won't allow anyone to come in and take pictures of police reports, "and we never will," she added. She further explained that even when no copies are obtained, the town can still charge for the time it takes to redact sensitive information from reports.
Which is how they end up charging $200 or more for a CD.
Stevens' bill would allow every government agency to do the same thing.
"It doesn't make any sense," says Paula Casey, executive director of the Arizona Newspaper Association. "Who's to say they don't just milk the clock?"
Casey predicts that if Stevens' bill is successful, "people with deep pockets will still be able to pay for records. But it'll keep citizens from even starting to look for something."
When it comes to public officials like Horne, of course, looking for something means finding something.
After New Times reporter Stephen Lemons filed a records request in 2010 for information about the suspicious hiring of Horne's rumored girlfriend, Carmen Chenal, Horne launched an investigation into who had leaked the tip. That probe turned into a debacle when investigator Meg Hinchey discovered possible evidence that Horne had engaged in campaign-finance fraud, resulting in hearings that began earlier this month. One of Hinchey's allegations is that Horne wanted certain public records destroyed illegally.
Making government records prohibitively expensive would clearly benefit some Arizonans more than others.
Got a tip? Send it to: Ray Stern.