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Brick Wall: Pima College named least transparent in state
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Brick Wall: Pima College named least transparent in state

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The Arizona Press Club has named Pima Community College the "winner" of the group's annual Brick Wall Award, given to the "most deceptive" government agency or official.

Saying the school "has promised much but delivered little in the area of openness and transparency," the statewide group of journalists (I'm a member of the board of directors) announced the award Tuesday.

The Press Club cited the college's violation of state open meeting laws, and a pattern of wrongful denial of public records requests from multiple news organizations — something we've become too familiar with at TucsonSentinel.com.

While the school has improved its handling of information that rightfully belongs in the hands of the public — Chancellor Lee Lambert will actually return phone calls, for instance, and college staff aren't petrified about speaking to the media as they were under former college head Roy Flores — officials have gone so far this year as to flat-out refuse to release documents related to the college's probation by the Higher Learning Commission, even though they acknowledged they had no legal basis on which to keep the papers from the public.

Recently, as the Press Club's Brick Wall citation relates, Pima pressured (without success) the Arizona Daily Star to remove the reporter covering the school from her beat. Even the students at the Aztec Press student news organization have reported a litany of access issues.

The school recently hired a new chief spokeswoman, Libby Howell, who has decades of private-sector experience with Southwest Gas, but little grounding in the legal requirements of Arizona's open meeting and public records laws.

Howell said Tuesday that she was attending an employee orientation meeting, and referred our request for comment to public relations consultant Jodi Horton.

Horton said that "in short, we do the best we can — for (Star reporter Carol Ann Alaimo) and for our other friends in the media, with whom our relationships are quite cordial." Pima officials cannot "drop everything and respond to a sometimes complex request with only a couple of hours," she said.

Pushing back at the Press Club's citing of PCC's refusal to allow reporters to view redacted records as required under state law, Horton said, "the legal office (also an office of one) cannot respond to record requests at warp speed or copy large numbers of redacted pages free of charge (should tax dollars really be spent in this way?). "

In contrast, other local government agencies, including the courts, allow reporters to review copies of redacted records without charge, consistent with a 2013 opinion by then-Attorney General Tom Horne.

"It's absolutely true that I requested that another reporter be assigned to cover activities at Pima Community College, but I did this only after ascertaining that we would never get a balanced story from this particular writer and after suffering a near-daily barrage of less than cordial emails," Horton said in an email.

"I firmly believe that our community college deserves a fair shake in the media. Attempting to brand the college as 'deceptive' is, at best, scurrilous," she said.

Certainly, the Star's reporting on PCC over the past few years has not been complimentary. By and large, neither have the accounts you've read here on TucsonSentinel.com. It's been a troubled institution.

I can't speak much on the behind-the-scenes professional relationships other reporters have had with PCC staff. Mine have been perfectly cordial. They should be; I used to work with a number of current and former Pima media relations staffers when we all sat near each other in the Tucson Citizen newsroom.

But a friendly relationship doesn't mean I haven't challenged them, repeatedly and pointedly, for their institution's failures to live up to the spirit and letter of the law.

While we haven't framed our reporting on Pima in the same way that the morning daily has — they haven't always been exactly charitable, and we generally underplay our headlines — the 2014 Brick Wall Award wasn't bestowed solely in response to one Star reporter's experience. Too many questions go unanswered, too many documents remain unreleased.

Arizona is a land of troubled public institutions, to be sure. But we in Tucson expect better, and well we should.

Dodge, dip, dive, duck and dodge

As I wrote in March, regarding Tucson's behind-closed-doors process of picking a new city manager, there's nothing novel about government officials trying to duck Arizona's laws about citizen access to information.

There's a disturbing pattern throughout state and local governments of controlling and limiting the access of citizens and the press — your access — to public documents and meetings. PCC isn't unique in that. Here's a reporters' litany of frustrations:

In the Legislature, a bill was filed this year to allow political candidates to keep their home addresses out of the public record. Another would have kept the names of police officers involved in fatal shootings secret for 90 days.

Another bill, shelved by the Legislature, would have allowed public agencies to deny "unduly burdensome" requests for information. Yet another that died in committee would have "completely gutted" open meeting laws by allowing elected officials to talk about any and all topics outside of public scrutiny.

In March, those few attending a Citizens' Water Advisory Committee were required to sign in and show ID to enter the conference room on the third floor of Tucson Water headquarters. That's an explicit violation of the state attorney general's guidelines on open meetings, which prohibit requiring people to sign in before they are permitted to attend a meeting.

Other practices make records difficult to obtain, even if they aren't outright denied.

The Pinal County Sheriff's Office has sometimes stalled for months before providing records to TucsonSentinel.com. Many other public agencies have conducted similar foot-dragging campaigns. It can take years to pry documents out of the U.S. Justice Department. And Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry instituted a new records regime that attempts to compel all requests to be made in writing through a county website, and requires that he receive a copy of all requests.

When PCC searched for a chancellor two years ago, they kept details from the public secret until the last minute — twice. When the Tucson Unified School District hired a superintendent, they similarly withheld the names of candidates and ultimately only announced a single finalist for the job before hiring him.

In most cases, officials are willing to wait out any threat of a lawsuit by news outlets — even if they know they would ultimately lose, the penalties for skirting disclosure laws are so light that they think it's worth the risk. If a news organization hires attorneys and files a suit, officials can either fight and drive up the costs or release the documents and render the suit moot — except for the ensuing legal bill.

As I wrote in March, officials know they can stall and delay and shuffle their feet and forward requests around their offices at their leisure. They skirt the spirit of the law while jumping through hoops in a show of meeting its letter.

That shouldn't just concern journalists; it should matter to you.

It's easy to chalk the behavior of politicians and bureaucrats up to business as usual, especially when you agree with their stances. But no matter your political party, it should matter when those who do the people's work lie, dissemble, exaggerate or try to keep you from learning the truth.

Disclaimers aside, the walls around Pima Community College have been built high. It'll take more than a PR campaign to knock out a few windows and brighten up the place. But as the instructors, staff and administrators there labor to clean up after the Flores years, they would do well to remember the old journalism adage that "sunlight is the best disinfectant."

They, and all of us, need to keep an important community institution moving forward into the light of day.

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hlc, lee lambert, libby howell, pcc, press club

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