Pat Flannery, The Republic | azcentral.com
Nancy Cantor remembers vividly her introduction to public records.
As Valley freeways took shape in the mid-1980s, planners routed the Pima Freeway through the east Scottsdale neighborhood where Cantor’s parents lived. “They were taking 2,000 homes,” Cantor recalled. “It was taking out houses that had just been built.”
Some city residents, Cantor among them, united to oppose the alignment. Cantor’s first step: getting the minutes of past meetings of public bodies that had a role in planning the route.
A five-year fight over the freeway alignment ensued, fueled in part by public records unearthed by Cantor's group and other opponents. Those documents laid bare the planning process for the freeway and helped document who told what to whom during critical planning stages. “Everybody brought bits and pieces of information to the table, and you had to fit it all together,” Cantor says.
Cantor never forgot the lesson of that fight, which activists largely won when the freeway route was moved farther east: Public records make a difference, helping citizens build a fact-based history of government decision-making and arming them with must-know information.
Database simplifies access to public records
A simple public-records request lets average citizens examine how their personal business is affected by government. Examples of public records include home valuations, accident reports, student records and professional licenses. But people also may, if they choose, peer more broadly into the public’s business, whether it’s via town-council members’ email, a county sheriff’s expense reports or memos detailing the inner workings of a state agency.
With the average citizen in mind, The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com have created azpublicinfo.com. The idea: Make it as simple as possible for citizens to interact with government at every level by bringing the breadth of available public records a bit closer. Users can find the agency that has the public records they are looking for through a search on azpublicinfo.com, and then fill out a short form that can generate and send an email requesting the information.
The website was developed through a $15,000 Knight-Cronkite Alumni Innovation Grant awarded to Republic digital producer Stephen Harding by Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The grant, created by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, is designed to promote digital innovation in newsrooms.
Kristin Gilger, associate dean at the Cronkite School, said grant proposals are evaluated on whether they innovate, how they apply technological tools in a newsroom setting, and whether they have a strong public-service aspect.
"This project we're really excited about ... it has all of those," Gilger said. "We hope other news organizations will see this and do similar things."
'Government is getting more secretive'
Arizonans are becoming savvier at ferreting out information from government, says Dennis Wells, the state ombudsman-citizen’s aide.
“There’s a growing awareness of their rights to access public records,” says Wells, whose office aims to objectively evaluate citizen complaints about unfair treatment by government. The office is an independent agency of the Arizona Legislature.
During the past budget year, Wells’ team received 612 calls about access to public documents or public meetings. Of those, 415 were from members of the public, 150 from government agencies seeking advice on records requests, and 47 from media members facing access problems. The vast majority of inquiries, Wells said, involved access to public records.
Wells says most large government entities understand the Arizona Public Records Law, which is transparent in its intent: “Public records and other matters in the custody of any officer shall be open to inspection by any person at all times during office hours.”
There are a number of recognized exceptions to the law, either spelled out in other Arizona statutes or dictated by case law established through court rulings.
Most reviews of state public-record laws rate Arizona’s somewhere in the broad middle — not the best, but far from the worst.
“For the most part, Arizona is stronger than most states,” says David Cuillier, director of the University of Arizona School of Journalism. In part, that’s because Arizona media over the years have sued to maintain open records and set good case law, he says.
But Cuillier, who has studied access to government information, sees a countervailing trend that is more troublesome: “Government is getting more secretive.”
Documents that in the past were easily accessible are now more difficult to pry from government agencies. Attorneys are more often brought into the mix, and professional public-information officers are paid well to mitigate or avoid potentially sensitive government disclosures.
Access is a subject Cuillier knows well. A decade ago, his doctoral thesis focused on public attitudes about access to government records.
What he has found is that citizens strongly support the concept of easy access to government records. But that support begins to wane when balanced against personal-privacy issues and national-security concerns. That, in turn, has made it politically easier to put restrictions in place that block access to records.
The post-9/11 era has brought less openness at both the federal and state levels, along with an increase in surveillance of private citizens. And the public has been largely silent.
“People usually defer to authority ... which is a little dangerous,” Cuillier says. They don’t notice restrictions placed on public records unless it affects them personally.
Power in citizens' hands
Cantor says most citizens don’t realize the wealth of information at their fingertips for the asking. For example, “If you’ve got a kid in school, the law allows you to look at your kid’s (school) record.”
Cuillier offers his journalism students a compendium of useful public-record sources and then sends them out on assignments that acquaint them with what’s available. He prefaces one by noting that students should familiarize themselves with government information not solely for professional reasons, but to help them in their personal lives.
Students are asked to select a property for sale and research everything about it, as they would if they were the buyer. Some homebuyers might already know the routine, but many likely do not.
Property-tax records establish square footage, taxable value, recent additions, easements and other details. Planning and zoning records disclose future neighborhood plans. Police records help a buyer learn about the neighborhood’s crime history. The state sex-offender registry discloses any offenders living nearby. Educational records help establish the quality of nearby schools. Local roadway and park plans, floodplain maps, landfill and environmental records, even census demographics, can contribute to a homebuyer’s decision.
So many aspects of government activity affect citizens. Here's just a sample:
- Records of state, regional and local decision-making bodies, including meeting minutes, emails, policy reports and agency audits.
- Professional licensing and disciplinary records for many professions, key among them doctors, lawyers, nurses, contractors, architects — even cosmetologists.
- Records on charities, whether organization material available through the state or financial information available through the federal government or charity watchdogs.
- Regulatory and inspection records (and histories of violations) for a variety of establishments, among them hospitals, nursing homes, day-care centers, bars, restaurants and public buildings.
- Business incorporation records, bankruptcy records and certain financial instruments that are publicly recorded, including financing statements, deeds of trust, liens, legal judgments and creditor lists.
Cantor recently has been helping a group of people trying to figure out why a neighborhood school closed in Scottsdale. She put them to work requesting school-district board-meeting minutes and then emails of board members and the district superintendent.
The matter is still under review. But Cantor says the group documented a chain of questionable events that led to the school closing. It also found problems with how the property was subsequently reused by the district. The Arizona Auditor General's Office is now investigating.
The same power is in the hands of every citizen. And Cantor said she has found most public agencies to be reasonable if public records are requested politely but firmly.
So take azpublicinfo.com for a spin, and see what you can find. If you care to give us feedback, even better. Send your thoughts on the website to firstname.lastname@example.org.