Public-records law can fall prey to ignorance

, The Republic |

Arizona Republic reporters Dennis Wagner and Yvonne Wingett Sanchez visited the Arizona Attorney General's office a couple of weeks ago to review public documents that deal with one of the biggest Arizona news stories in recent years.

I won't get into what the documents contain. You'll likely read stories soon based on the information culled from them.

Instead, I'll tell you how their misadventure illustrates the needless roadblocks and delays we often encounter securing public records that are key to the kind of accountability journalism we strive for in The Republic's News Watchdog Center.

Wagner and Wingett Sanchez had planned to use their smartphones to photograph the documents. Reporters routinely snap photos of the paperwork they've requested or, when the task calls for it, use portable scanners to vacuum up the information.

But the official they were dealing with this time, Terry Harrison, with the Attorney General's Liability Management Section, said they would not be allowed to take pictures. Instead, the reporters would need to mark the pages they were interested in and the office would copy them — for a fee.

The reporters protested, noting an attorney general's opinion, no less, had in 2013 clarified that agencies should not charge for documents duplicated using personal devices.

Harrison dug in, insisting the issue wasn't up for debate. If the reporters didn't like it, well, they should call their attorney.

The reporters did. Hours and some lawyer fees later, Wagner and Wingett Sanchez left with the records on a thumb drive, at no charge.

The situation highlights the arbitrary approach some in government take to public records. A photocopy was acceptable, but an iPhone photo wasn't? How about a manual typewriter? Or stone tablets?

The state and an agency may have established policies, which Wagner and Wingett Sanchez cited in this case. But when an employee thinks otherwise, suddenly the noble intentions of the public-records law are thwarted by their understanding — or lack of understanding — of the law.

To their credit, once others in the Attorney General's Office were alerted to the problem, they clarified the issue in a letter.

"General Brnovich sees transparency and accountability as a hallmark of his administration," Ryan Anderson, the office's communications director, said in the written statement. The new AG has not changed the standing opinion on copying documents, Anderson said.

That's good news. But is everyone in state government paying attention?

I'm told that during the 1990s, the solicitor general held periodic classes for state employees on public records and the open meeting law.

Seems like it's time to bring that back. Some are in desperate need of a refresher course.

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