Chihak: Secrecy shrivels when the sun shinesby Michael A. Chihak on Mar. 15, 2008, under Local, Opinion
“Press releases tell us when federal agencies do something right, but the Freedom of Information Act lets us know when they do not.” Patrick Leahy, U.S. senator, 1996
Hundreds of thousands of tax dollars have been wasted lately by public officials stubbornly thinking it’s their government, not yours.
The money has gone to pay lawyers, judges, bureaucrats and elected officials wrangling over release of information.
It’s appropriate to make note of such dissemblings on the eve of Sunshine Week, which begins Sunday in celebration of opening government by casting light on its workings.
In many instances, those workings are reflected in the paperwork maintained by government officials and agencies.
Your access is assured under federal, state and local laws, all designed to assume openness rather than secrecy.
The federal Freedom of Information Act is the trend-setting law. It was recently updated, and new legislation has been introduced to keep it working as intended – for the people.
It’s needed because elected officials and other public servants often assume they can operate in secret. It costs a lot of money to get them to act – if not believe – otherwise.
Newspapers often take the lead in seeking to let the sun shine in on government activities that officials would just as soon keep in the dark.
Here are recent examples:
• The Tucson Citizen spent nearly $30,000 on legal fees in the last eight months seeking records from the Pima County Attorney’s Office and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Add in tens of thousands that the county attorney and Arpaio spent fighting over this in court. There probably also are thousands more in court costs.
It likely exceeds $100,000, most of it taxpayer money, over a stack of paperwork that revealed nothing more, and nothing less, than the farouche nature of a politician, Arpaio, and his equally ornery lawyer, Dennis I. Wilenchik.
The County Attorney’s Office wanted to release the paperwork it was holding in the case. Arpaio and his lawyer were not OK with it, and there’s the rub.
A judge ordered that the records be released and that Arpaio must reimburse the Citizen $25,241 in legal fees. Arpaio filed notice of appeal this week, meaning taxpayers will shell out even more for this farce.
• The Citizen, The Arizona Republic and the Arizona Daily Star have spent thousands in the last several months to pry open state Child Protective Services records in several child-abuse deaths in Tucson.
Much of what the records revealed were performance shortcomings by CPS rather than confidential information about children.
Rep. Jonathan Paton, R-Tucson, an advocate for opening CPS records, said the newspapers’ actions clearly pushed CPS toward improvements.
• The Citizen sought, with some success, the administrative paperwork behind Lute Olson’s leave of absence.
We didn’t go to court, because after University of Arizona officials fretted, fumed and flouted over our requests, they produced a big stack of documents. Key aspects were excluded or blacked out.
We learned enough via the paperwork and interviews to tell how the basketball coach’s leave was handled relative to the law and campus policy.
These are but a few examples of how your rights are protected in regard to knowing what’s going on in government.
It’s good, then, to pause for celebration of Sunshine Week as recognition of the efforts on many fronts to keep it our government and not theirs.
Reach Michael A. Chihak at 573-4646 or firstname.lastname@example.org
TO LEARN MORE More on Sunshine Week