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Government’s black marks keep sunshine out

In Arizona, the march for openness is a long, tough slog. It's a difficult issue to rouse the rabble on because government secrecy is more insidious than overtly outrageous.

In Arizona, the march for openness is a long, tough slog. It's a difficult issue to rouse the rabble on because government secrecy is more insidious than overtly outrageous.

Saturday the sun sets on Sunshine Week. Not that anyone will notice.

The annual weeklong observance began in 2002 and is led by the American Society of Newspaper Editors to promote open government and call attention to government secrecy.

In Arizona, the march for openness is a long, tough slog. It’s a difficult issue to rouse the rabble on because government secrecy is more insidious than overtly outrageous.

Arizona’s open records and open meetings laws are pretty broad, but they lack any substantive penalty for violating them. The only way to force a government into releasing a record wrongly withheld is to file a lawsuit and hope the government is later forced to pay your attorney’s fees.

There are few outrageous violations of the state’s openness laws; it’s mostly death by a thousand little denials.

Some recent local examples:

• Usually, when the Tucson Unified School District school board wants to hold a special meeting, an agenda is posted on the district Web site and the district’s PR machine alerts reporters about it via e-mail.

In February, on a Friday morning, a TUSD employee quietly posted a meeting agenda on a bulletin board outside the district office announcing a Saturday meeting to interview finalists for the superintendent’s job.

By the letter of the law, that’s all that was required. No agenda was posted on the Web site, no e-mails went out to reporters.

The district thought it was OK because it intended to conduct the interviews in “executive session,” which means secret, so it didn’t matter that no one was notified about it.

But reporters could have staked out the hallway and taken note of who went in and out of the interviews.

When Citizen reporters on Monday found out about the rare Saturday meeting, they demanded to know the names of those interviewed. The district refused, saying it would announce the finalists that coming Thursday.

There was nothing our reporters could do about it. We could have sued, but by the time the lawyers were alerted, the names would have been released. Were the four names announced that Thursday the same names of those interviewed that Saturday? We’ll never know.

• TUSD held special board meetings last week to let the public have a say about the proposal to close four elementary schools.

The board, citing advice from lawyers, claims the Open Meetings Law and parliamentary procedures prevented it from speaking about the issue at the meetings. I believe that was purposeful to avoid difficult public discussions with passionate people upset about the closures.

The board could have posted an agenda that listed the issue as a discussion-only item and suspended its debate rules so it could openly discuss the issue with the hundreds of people who attended the five meetings.

Instead they used its rules and the law against the public.

• In an effort to answer questions about Lute Olson’s leave of absence as coach of the University of Arizona men’s basketball team, the Citizen requested hundreds of public records from the university.

Among them were Olson’s travel records for the last three months or so of 2007. We got several records in which the cities Olson visited were blacked out.

That seemed silly, so I sent a letter to UA asking for a better explanation. Officials said revealing the cities could possibly violate the federal privacy rights of student-athletes Olson was recruiting because we might be able to figure out who they were. That’s so stupid I laughed out loud when I read it.

But where Olson went on recruiting trips was not the story we were after, so there was no point in suing the university to find out.

Those black marks are perfect examples of the little denials, the little secrets that keep the public from a full accounting of the activities of its government.

Those blacked out cities are festering sores for which there is no salve save sunshine. To me, the irony of Sunshine Week is that every week should be Sunshine Week.

It’s your government. Hold it accountable.


Read Tucson Citizen Assistant City Editor Mark B. Evans’ blog, “Why a Free Press?”

If you need help accessing records, call 573-4614 or e-mail mevans@tucsoncitizen.com

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