Suppression Roulette

It might have made lively theatre of the absurd, if it hadn't been so boring and stupid and real.

First, the lady with the semi-bouffant hairdo--imagine a cross between Mary Poppins and the Church Lady--thanked the 14 people at the conference table for participating in the Task Force. Next, the lady--who as chairwoman of the Task Force spoke in the type of unctuous singsong usually reserved for TV evangelists--assured everyone of the governor's good faith, which is a lot like assuring everyone of the governor's good credit. She noted that many of the people seated at the table would not have come if they had doubts that the governor's Task Force was a Good Faith Task Force.

The lady then asked the members of the Good Faith Public Records Task Force to speak to one another with respect. There was no need to be impolite about anything, the semi-bouffant lady said, because the Good Faith Public Records Task Force was an advisory body that existed only because the governor yearned to be advised.

And finally this syrup-sweet lady--her name, by the way, is Lisa Hauser, counsel to Governor J. Fife Symington III and a regular subverter of open government--led the Task Force as it discussed, point by point, an agenda whose plain aim was the butchering of Arizona's public records law.

During that discussion, the four members of the Task Force who work in or for Arizona's news media displayed some vague discomfort. Occasionally, they looked as though they, or someone near them, had gas. On the whole, though, everyone was quite polite. No more than 15 minutes were spent discussing any one piece of the plan to eviscerate the public's right to know in Arizona for all time.

I shouldn't be too hard on the four media representatives who attended the first meeting of the governor's Good Faith Public Records Task Force. All sarcasm aside, I know they faced a tough decision. When the chief executive of your state asks you to serve on a commission or board, the instinctive response is to agree.

But Governor Symington is no normal chief executive. He is an alleged felon who has been deeply embarrassed by news reports about his federal indictment, his personal bankruptcy and a host of other bad acts.

Many of those news reports were based on documents acquired by the news media, under the public records law. Fife Symington hates Arizona's public records law because it allowed the news media to make the disclosures that created the public outcry that drove prosecutors to investigate and indict him. Any notion that Governor J. Fife Symington III would convene a Public Records Task Force to improve the public records law is simpleminded fantasy.

So the four news-media representatives on the governor's Public Records Task Force--Tribune Newspapers executive editor Jeff Bruce, Arizona Newspapers Association executive director John Fearing, Channel 10 news anchor John Hook, and Brown & Bain attorney Dan Barr--need to come to their senses and boycott the group's four remaining meetings. If these four people need a reason to boycott (beyond, that is, Fife Symington's clear hostility toward open government), they should consider the Task Force chairwoman, Lisa Hauser.

Some of Hauser's views on open government would be appreciated in North Korea. I can't forget her response to a public records request by one New Times writer, John Dougherty.

Dougherty was interested in how the Symington administration created its much-ballyhooed tax-cutting, deficit-eliminating budgets. This was at a time when the Republican Revolution was in vogue, and Arizona's fiscal policies were a matter of national interest.

So Dougherty asked to see deliberative communications between Symington and his chief budget adviser, Peter Burns. What a radical idea!

After months of delay, Hauser finally responded to Dougherty's request. She turned over hundreds of pages of government documents--all but a few of them completely blank. This future chair of the Good Faith Public Records Task Force decided that the people of Arizona had no right to see how the State of Arizona went about spending their money. These documents, Hauser decreed, were not public; they were confidential, protected under the doctrine of "executive privilege" made famous by that other supporter of open government, Richard Nixon.

So she just whited them all out.
Hauser has cited "executive privilege"--a privilege that does not actually exist in state statute or case law--as a reason for hiding vast tracts of publicly owned information about Governor Symington. She has been an active participant in the Symington administration's running refusal to follow Arizona's public records law. In addition, she is one hell of an annoying, sanctimonious person.

Memo to Barr, Bruce, Fearing and Hook: Take a hike. The governor's Good Faith Public Records Task Force is a fix. Nothing good will come out of it. Stop dignifying it with your presence.

I seldom praise the Arizona Republic, but whoever conceived and wrote that newspaper's lead editorial on Sunday--the piece opposed Symington's attempted subversion of the public records law--deserves the thanks of every Arizonan.

For once, the state's largest newspaper has decided it will support the interests of decent, ordinary folks against the wishes of a powerful Republican. That's as amazing as it is welcome--even if prosecutors and creditors have the goods on Mr. Symington, and he is clearly on his way out of Dodge. The Republic's continued defense of the public records law will be vital in the coming legislative session, if only because so many of our right-wing representatives are too dull to understand the statute protects a fundamental liberty that small-government types ought to prize.

I also like the Republic's decision to put Lisa Hauser's phone number in the paper, so she can face the public wrath she deserves (542-1333). In the final months of his gubernatorial life, though, Fife Symington is thrashing about in a variety of dangerous ways; the only real solution to the problem is shortening this man's time in office. Here's the recall number: 1-888-FIFEOUT. Use it.

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John Mecklin