Before I go into the particulars of a case in which a school board in Arizona is suing some taxpaying citizens who did open records requests to find out what their school was doing, I want to mention a few guiding principles on open government. First, James Madison
“A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both.” – James Madison
and from the preamble to the Public Information Handbook, put out by theTexas Attorney General, which is on p 166 and references Govt Code Chapter 552.001
Under the fundamental philosophy of the American consitutional form of representative government that adheres to the principle that government is the servant and not the master of the people, it is the policy of this state that each person is entitled, unless otherwise expressly provided by law, at all times to complete information about the affairs of government and the official acts of public officials and employees. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created. The provisions of this chapter shall be liberally construed to implement this policy.
If there is any question about whether people who elect their governmental representatives are able to find out, through open records or through transparent open meetings, what those public officials are doing, just those two quotes above ought to settle the issue.
But not for a school board in Congress, Arizona.
“This (lawsuit) is totally about volume,” said Congress School District Attorney Franklin Hoover. “The pattern of repeated requests made, the multiple requests for the same documents and the manner in which they were made became harassment when they interfered with the district; they crossed the line of reasonableness.”
In fact, the volume of continuous public records requests (often for school board agendas and minutes for school board meetings attended by one of the four) resulted in Congress District hiring a full-time employee to research and answer the requests. The entire situation has resulted in a $100,000 price tag to the district, according to District Board Member Pat Fisher.
But according to Goldwater Institute Attorney Le Templar, motivation for requesting records is irrelevant.
“They can ask for any reason or no reason,” said Templar. “A person is entitled to see public records.”
Templar believes it is hypothetically possible for a government entity to be harassed “if someone asks for the same documents day after day,” but does not believe this case warrants harassment.
According to Goldwater Institute Attorney Carrie Ann Sitren, “The way public records law works, the government has the ability to deny requests for inappropriate records. Even in a situation where a person is filing repeated requests with the sole intent of taking up the government’s time ... the government can simply ignore or send a form response to inappropriate requests.”
Now, I have to say that the part in the article about short deadlines with requests, if true, isn't a good use of asking for records. The defendants put a time limit on when they wanted the information back, so it may be that Arizona's Public Information Laws are not as explicit as they are in Texas. In Texas, for example, when a citizen makes a public information request, the entity asked has 10 days to respond, but it doesn't have to be 10 days to supply the information as long as it is done in a reasonable time frame.
Here's what Goldwater Institute says about the case.
Warren said the run-in with the school superintendent over her grandson’s education plan made her skeptical of how the district was spending taxpayer money. In 2002, she began requesting copies of board minutes and agendas dating back to 2000, according to the lawsuit. By the district’s own reckoning, Warren filed four public records requests between June 21, 2002, and February 2003. In every case, the documents sought dealt with agendas and minutes, the most basic public records which all government agencies are required by law to make available.
The district was not properly posting governing board agendas or making minutes available to the public, as required by the state’s open meetings law, Warren said. That assertion was supported by an investigation conducted by the state Attorney General’s Office in 2002 that was triggered in part by complaints Warren filed.
What's interesting about this is that the Arizona Attorney General's office smacked back the school board at that point. You simply have to read this whole document from December 30, 2002. Notice that one of the requests was for agendas and minutes. You'd think all these records would already be out there and easily accessible. Looks like they finally are, according to this article.
Though Warren said her battle to get public records from the district is still ongoing, she and others have had some success. Last year, the district began posting agendas and meeting minutes online, something Liz Hill of the ombudsman’s office said she has long encouraged.
(For example, in the case of OUR county, most of the governmental agencies now keep these documents on their website, as prescribed by Texas law) But certainly that ought to be a reasonable request for a citizen to ask for, especially agendas and minutes. I also note that the school board was calling executive sessions without stating WHAT they were going into executive session for. Also, the board went into executive session to generally discuss salary information, which item should have been open to the public. As p 2 says
The School Board applies the provisions of ARS 38-431.03(A)(1) too broadly. This is not a catch-all provision for any topic remotely related to personnel matters. Rather, this provision applies only to discussions concerning specific officers, appointees, and employees. A public body may not discuss general budget information in executive session under the guise of a personnel matter.
What was the Arizona AG's remedy?
To resolve these violations, we recommend that the School Board obtain training from a lawyer experienced with the Open Meetings Laws. This training should include an explanation of the very limited nature of executive session. ..
Another very interesting aspect is that the AG suggested that the school board posts its meetings in the post office!
You state that the School Board posts the agendas in the school building and on the entrance gate. The problem is that the public does not visit these locations daily. This is of special concern due to the large number of meetings held Monday mornings... The public may not have had much reason to be at the school to see the notice over the weekend. We recommend that the School Board consider posting agendas for all meetings in a more public location, such as the post office, to alleviate any notice concerns.
The school board was also smacked by the state for their extremely slow response in providing a mom's request to see her child's school record. PDF
... The information provided also demonstrates some inconsistencies and delays in the District's responses. As a result, we are concerned that the District does not fully understand its responsibilities and obligations under Arizona's Public Records Laws.
and here's an editorial from Prescott, Arizona.
But life in a small community is not so informal that units of local government don't have to comply with state law - especially a state law that underpins the First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and the press.
Case in point is the Congress Elementary School District. Twice, in 2002 and in 2007, the Arizona Attorney General's Office found the district in violation of the state open meetings law.
Now the district has launched its greatest show of contempt for open government by suing district patrons who have requested information under the Arizona Open Records Law.
In its lawsuit against district patrons Jean Warren, Jennifer Renee Hoge, Cyndi Regis and Barbara Rejon, the district is asking the court to declare that the district has no obligation to provide the information patrons have asked for, grant a permanent injunction against the patrons from making any more requests for information, and to prohibit patrons from suing the district.
As well as opinion from Clear Thinking/Chuck Rogers (Educator Arrogance)
We have a new definition of "nuisance," courtesy of the Congress, Arizona school district.
Holding employees accountable to their employer constitutes a "nuisance." Specifically, the district's attorney claims that four district parents' requests for records which are supposed to be in the public domain anyway, and also those parent's requests for investigations into the clandestine behavior of district officials, represent a "costly nuisance" to the district. Therefore the district should not be forced to comply with the requests. Smugness and disregard for the rights of parents whose children they teach makes sense to jackasses who don't want those parents to discover what's going on in school. So fierce are Congress, Arizona officials about keeping the details of their conduct away from parents that the district has sued the four parents making the disclosure requests. ...
Next time your boss holds you accountable for results, just tell her she's being a "nuisance." If she pushes the issue, sue her.
One must wonder what Congress, Arizona school district officials have to hide.
When was the last time you asked your school officials to show you your child's records? When was the last time you understood how your school district spends your tax dollars? Think it's time you asked these questions--and more?
I see that the case is scheduled to go before a judge on April 5, 2010.
Incidentally, now that you have read all of that, I thought I'd put in a few notes about how, at least in my experience, public records are handled here. The request goes to the public information officer in charge of open/public records and is filled according to rules set down by the Texas Attorney General's office. ANY CITIZEN can do an open records request, and the requestee CANNOT ask them for what purpose. If the requestee has an issue with what the requestor is asking, he/she/they can file a request for opinion from the AG's office. Likewise, if the person asking believes his or her request has not been handled correctly, he or she can file a complaint with the AG. The Texas Lege, in the last few years, added some procedures for charging for records, in an effort both to cut down on the work that the requestees have as well as cut down on nuisance claims. (Incidentally, any citizen can ask for the log of open records requests that were made of any governmental entity-I did about GRISD because I was curious when they said they might have to hire someone else to keep up on the filling of them. Not only were some of them marketing companies getting children's information, but, happily, GRISD started posting check registers and agendas online after we requested, and are also posting audio in the form of podcasts. Something to note is that this type of thing is what WE want-we want the agendas, minutes, audio, check registers, and agenda packets posted online at each website for each governmental entity that has one. (I have also many times gone down to the courthouse to look at records there and make copies at my own expense). That said, that does NOT do away with open records requests because People Want What They Want. In other words, a governmental entity cannot simply refer a requestor to the website.) And one more thing, if a requestor disagrees with how much he or she is being charged, there is a department in the AG's office for that as well-for example, Sid Miller wanted to charge me $2000 to see his electronic calendar.
Anyway, concerned taxpayers ought to want to know where the money is going and how it's being spent. As far as I'm concerned, there are 2 prongs-first, every local governmental entity needs to be sure that basic public information like agendas and minutes are online (have to say that the Somervell County Water District does an excellent job of this) and secondly, every citizen CAN go find out for him or herself what's going on. That's why we have such great public information and open meetings laws in Texas.