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Arizona public records aren’t so public

More than a month ago, 19 Arizona agencies were given simple public record requests seeking data on the numbers of those requests those agencies received in 2015 and 2016. Less than half responded.

Of the 19 agencies requested, nine responded, three on the same day it was sent.

Only one agency — Arizona Attorney General's Office — provided everything requested. Officials there explained they did so because their response was required by law.

So why do most Arizona agencies deny, reject and ignore such requests? The state's public records law requires only those requests be filled in a "timely manner" with no specific definition as to what is timely.

That fuzzy concept is beginning to see legal challenges. In California, for example, the ACLU is filing a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Police Department that First Amendment advocates are saying if successful could help end the stonewalling of governmental officials about what is timely.

An example of the far side of timely in Arizona comes with the Department of Public Safety. In 2016, it took the department four months to release basic police reports involving Gov. Doug Ducey's immigration strike force. When the information was finally released it showed the department inflated its claims of arrests and drug seizures.

This January, Arizona Sonora News re-filed that request, seeking specifically to understand how the $50 million provided by the Legislature to fund the strike force had been spent. Almost five months later, there has still been no response from DPS.

"Public records transcend policy," Ryan Anderson, the director of communication at the AG's Office, said of the importance of responding to public records quickly and responsibly. "They transcend media. It's important to have people involved in that process."

The only governmental organization that completely ignored the request, without so much as a confirmation email, was the Arizona state Senate.

In 2016, on average, the Attorney General's Office released, either in-full or partially, a little over half of the requests they received. They denied a 20 percent of their requests, one of the highest of the governmental organizations that responded, had about 5 percent of the requests withdrawn by the requestor, had to refer over 10 percent of the requests to a different, more appropriate agency, and are still working on serving a little over 10 percent of their requests.

The requests were sent out on March 20. In Arizona state law, an agency is only required to respond to public record requests in a "timely manner:" this could be anything from one day to a couple months, and some records have been outstanding for years.

About half of the agencies requested didn't turn over any records at all, including the Arizona Board of Regents, the Arizona Department of Child Safety, the Arizona Department of Corrections, the Governor's Office, the Arizona State Senate, the Arizona Secretary of State and the Department of Public Safety.

There were multiple agencies that didn't have a spreadsheet or their data as easily accessible as the AG's Ooffice simply because they weren't tracking them.

The Arizona House of Representatives kept an Excel file that had each of the records requested, by whom, who had responded and the dates of the responses. For the House of Representatives, in 2015 and 2016 combined, 64 records were requested. Half of those have been filled. In the same time frame, the AG's Office received 570.

Media was the most common group that sent requests, followed by businesses and citizens.

By not answering in the month since the requests were sent, the agencies aren't actually violating any law, but public records advocates argue they are violating the spirit and intent of the law, which is what is being fought over in California.

"The Attorney General Mark Brnovich is a big believer in transparency," Anderson said. The AG's Office responded the quickest, with the most efficient information from all of the agencies.

The office under Brnovich hired a person whose entire job is to deal with public records.

"Brnovich recognized how critical it was because we saw public records were not given in a uniform fashion. It was important to have someone who focused on that almost exclusively…A priority was placed on public records and we have a capable person in the driver's seat."

Bethany Diaz, the deputy public information officer, deals exclusively with public records in the department.

"I personally just think that open government is vital to ensuring that it's serving the government," Diaz said. "I am in charge and committed to it."

Other organizations might not have a specific person dedicated to dealing with public records, and there are plenty of reasons for this: Anderson speculated that it could be due to organizations being short-staffed, or just not having enough records requests each year to put one person's full attention on it.

"I think it's a great idea," said Daniel Scarpinato, a spokesman for Ducey (and a former reporter for the Arizona Daily Star). "I applaud the AG's Office for doing that. Agency by agency basis that could be a difficult thing to do. I do think that it's part of the job of a PIO and I do think to the extent that we need some support staff that may be necessary but at the end of the day from our perspective that is part of our duty of those of us who are working in state government, we still have to follow the law and provide those records promptly."

The biggest issue Arizona Sonora News Service has run into with public records this legislative session has been from the Arizona Department of Public Safety. It didn't respond to this request and still hasn't responded to outstanding requests sent in early February seeking basic incident reports of the border strike force. Those reports have long been considered public documents.

"Our goal here always is to improve," Scarpinato said. "During the transition after the governor was elected, I met with some representatives in the media to talk about some of their needs. One of the things we heard was that public records access was a challenge and in some cases they weren't even getting a response or acknowledgement. So we have tried to change that culture throughout our agencies."

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National Archives

The stacks at the Washington National Records Center in Suiteland, Md.