Cuillier: Arizona’s transparency forecast calls for increasing clouds
Arizonans are losing control of their government.
As the nation celebrates National Sunshine Week, March 12-18, all indicators point to an alarming trend of increasing government secrecy, including in our state.
Ten years ago, if you asked to see government records in Arizona, on average you would get them about half the time. Record requests I sent to Arizona police agencies and school districts often resulted in ghosting or illegal denials.
That's nothing to celebrate this Sunshine Week. But it's even worse today, where the average person will be successful in receiving records from their government only a quarter of the time.
That's based on my analysis of nearly 1,500 requests to state and local agencies in Arizona from the nonprofit MuckRock, which assists citizens in public records requests. Compared to other states, Arizona ranks 33rd in transparency.
So why should we care?
Because government transparency matters. Freedom of information laws and practices lead to cleaner drinking water, less sex-offender recidivism, lower food service complaints, increased trust in government institutions, reduced corruption, and helps parents make better school choices for their children. For every dollar spent on public records-based journalism, society benefits $287.
Yet, governments across the United States continue to get more secretive, year after year, as backlogs stymie timely response. Underrepresented communities are shut out of the process. Requesters face arbitrary copy fees, excessive delays, and unfounded redactions and denials. The courts are clogged with litigation, costing taxpayers more than $43 million per year. The U.S. FOIA's strength is in the bottom half of the world – ranking 74th out of 136 nations. Experts say the system is broken, and that we need to start from scratch.
Arizona is a good case in point.
This year the Legislature exempted itself from public accountability laws, allowing itself to destroy its emails – effectively hiding the public's business from the public. Pending bills would allow police to charge exorbitant fees for people to examine police body cam footage, leading to increased police secrecy. A proposal would institute a 15-day deadline for agencies to respond to requests, which would cause delays for citizens, according to my research examining records response time.
Even in Tucson, we see increasing secrecy – hiding vital information from the public. Heck, even in my own workplace, the University of Arizona.
During the past 17 years that I've taught at the UA, over and over I've had students ask for public records from the university, only to be turned down for absurd reasons. One university attorney told me that government "data" isn't a public record. Another told one of my students that people who receive parking tickets could not be divulged because tickets are "educational records" protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
I've seen UA administrators shift communications to text messaging to avoid public record laws (even though those messages are also subject to public record laws). The past two UA presidential searches only revealed the "final candidate" without transparency in the selection process. That's despite a 1991 state Supreme Court ruling that said the top 17 finalists should be divulged. One UA professor has been suing the university – successfully – to acquire public records that administration has tried to keep secret.
More recently, in October, we saw how the university's secrecy impacted the community before, during and after the killing of Professor Tom Meixner.
Now, I don't think government administrators, including those at the UA, are bad people. I understand the pressures they face, particularly in maintaining a positive public front to avoid budget cuts from the Legislature. Max Weber said secrecy is the natural state of bureaucracy.
That is why we, as the governed, need to push back against that secrecy, or risk losing representative government altogether.
It used to be that journalists served as that accountability watchdog, and many, including the Tucson Sentinel, continue to do their best. But the reality is the legacy media industry has been hamstrung through a shift in its economic model, leading to closed newspapers (e.g., Tucson Citizen) and slashed newsrooms staffs. As a result, news organizations are less likely to go to court to fight for public information.
What does that mean for Tucson, the state of Arizona, and the rest of the country? It means citizens need to take control of the instruments they have created. It means supporting public affairs journalism, like the Tucson Sentinel.
It means forming local organizations, perhaps even information taxing districts, to acquire government records and sue when government agencies stonewall. It means demanding that our leaders have the backbone to serve with transparency and accountability, even when uncomfortable or difficult.
And if they don't, kick them out.
Ultimately, it means taking responsibility and ownership of our institutions, of our community, because the public's business is our business.
David Cuillier, Ph.D., is an associate professor and former director of the University of Arizona School of Journalism, and recent president of the National Freedom of Information Coalition and Society of Professional Journalists . He is co-author of “The Art of Access: Strategies for Acquiring Public Records” and is a member of the Federal FOIA Advisory Committee under the National Archives and Records Administration. He will be leaving the UA in May to serve as director of the Brechner Freedom of Information Project at the University of Florida. He can be reached at email@example.com.