the republic seems to think the public-records laws actuall work. my experience has been most government officials dont even try to obey them i have send maybe 70 public records request to mayor hugg hallman of tempe and he doesnt even answer my emails.

Spotlight on public-records law Know your rights in obtaining information

Ginger D. Richardson The Arizona Republic Mar. 12, 2006 12:00 AM

Ever wonder whether your family doctor has ever been disciplined? Pondered whether your favorite restaurant has a clean health-inspection record?

Been curious about what they're building next door?

A few years ago, finding such information was a time-consuming process. Residents had to trek down to the relevant government office, wait in line, fill out a public-records request and look through volumes of documents.

But these days, a world of information is just a mouse click away, for those who know how to find it.

From neighborhood crime statistics and City Council meeting minutes to elementary school lunch menus and calendars, public agencies have put volumes of documents on the Internet. Nearly every city in the Valley, for example, has its own Web site, and some contain tens of thousands of pages of information.

And many documents that aren't available online can be easily requested by simply sending an e-mail or filling out an online form.

"The days of having to go down to an office and requesting a shoebox full of documents are over," said Dan Barr, an attorney for the First Amendment Coalition of Arizona.

In fact, online information has become an increasingly valuable tool for everyday people.

Kat Henderson of Tempe said she uses the Tempe Elementary School District's Web site on a daily basis to check the cafeteria offerings. Her son is a vegetarian.

Today marks the start of the second-annual "Sunshine Week: Your Right to Know," a nationwide effort designed to encourage discussion on the importance of open government.

As part of that event, The Arizona Republic is taking a look at Arizona's Public Records Law, including how to access information, what's available electronically and what's being withheld.

Arizona's public-records statute was first adopted in 1901, with a single paragraph that stated that all records kept by the government must be open to the public. That crux of that law is still in effect today, and experts say that, for the most part, Arizona's statute is a good one.

"There are quite a number of exemptions, but we aren't that much different than other states, either in the amount of records that you can get or those that you can't," said John Fearing, executive director of the Arizona Newspaper Association.

The current law governs what documents must be released but also makes provisions for those that can be withheld.

Medical records, for example, aren't public, nor are adoption records or court records that contain certain information about juveniles.

The law also states that information must be released in a timely fashion. But as former Mesa teacher Shari- Anne Fischer found out, that doesn't always happen.

Fischer said it took a lot of persistence - and several months of asking - to get the Mesa district to release her personnel files.

"It left a bad taste in my mouth because the teacher is not entitled to a copy of their records," she said. "It took my husband several months of phone calls and showing up in person before they would say, 'yes.' "

Mesa district spokeswoman Kathy Bareiss said the district makes every effort to respond to requests in a timely manner and often provides residents information without making them fill out a form.

"Typically, when people call for information, we make every effort to provide it," she said. "There might be some instances where it might take a little longer."

But although Arizona's statute is clear on the prompt release of public documents, it is decidedly vague when it comes to electronic records.

For example, the law does not require public bodies to put information into a computer database nor to make information available in electronic format. That means that in some municipalities, such as Chandler, a person can get campaign-finance information just by visiting the city's Web site. But in other cities, like Phoenix, a requestor has to go down to the City Clerk's Office and pay a copying fee of 14 cents per page.

The law also includes broad provisions that allow many agencies to withhold certain information that they have deemed "sensitive" or potentially hazardous to public safety.

Such issues have taken on an increasingly high-profile status since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, with debates raging almost daily around the country about what information should or should not be considered private.

In Arizona, agencies have decided that a wide range of information - from security measures at the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station and detailed schematics of water-distribution lines, to communication sites for public safety or aviation equipment and diesel fuel-storage facilities - should not be made available, electronically or in any other format.

"Right after 9/11, the City Manager's Office started looking at what we needed to do to protect certain information," said Rob Sweeney, Phoenix's acting assistant chief information officer. "There is just no business need for some people to see some of this sensitive information, so why provide access to it?"

There are those, however, who are concerned that too much information is now being withheld in the name of national security. Sunshine Week was created, in part, to foster dialogue about that very issue.

"I think there were some things that needed to be taken from public view after September 11," said Andy Alexander, the Washington bureau chief for Cox Newspapers and chairman of the American Society for Newspaper Editors' Freedom of Information Committee. "But we have seen, around the country, a number of cases where information has been taken down in the absence of good public discussion. Those discussions need to take place."

Republic writers Karina Bland and JJ Hensley contributed to this article.

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