Last week in this space we outlined some campaign coverage rules designed to keep candidates civil – calling out distortion or ridicule, for example.
We were subsequently reminded, however, that it is sometimes what a candidate doesn’t say or do that is just as revealing of character. From staying silent when leadership calls for speaking out against a wrong to circulating a less than candid resume, the sins of omission in public life can be just as telling as ones of commission.
This comes up as Sunshine Week, sponsored by American Society of News Editors, ends but the ongoing struggle for open government continues. As technology advances, there are more ways than ever for officials to evade scrutiny, whether through private e-mail servers, “walking quorums” via cellphone text messages or online conference calls that lack a written record. On the other hand, most digital communications leave behind tracks and the courts have ruled that almost all of them are public.
Here in Flagstaff, we’ve had fairly civil campaigns but somewhat reluctant transparency once the candidates are in office. One year, there was the anonymous leak of a disparaging memo by a councilmember running against the incumbent mayor – the former lost, anyway. And this year we have seen a city manager blast two councilmembers without naming them, then resign without further comment.
But the biggest area of stonewalling falls under what elected officials and their attorneys call personnel and privacy exemptions to public records and meetings laws. In Arizona, as First Amendment Coalition Attorney Dan Barr has pointed out, the Legislature has chosen not to exempt personnel records from the Public Records Law on the basis of invasion of privacy. That means that the performance evaluations of appointed managers who exercise discretion in their duties (as opposed to rank-and-file workers) are subject to disclosure, no matter how embarrassing the manager might find them. That’s why a former county health director was unsuccessful in trying to hide her evaluation. And it’s why the current Flagstaff City Council ought to turn over Josh Copley’s evaluations and address why it chose not to honor the date he requested for retirement.
And speaking of Copley, the council is choosing a different excuse for hiding how it went about determining how to find a permanent replacement. After hiring Barbara Goodrich as an interim city manager, it met in secret and emerged without ever convening in public to take a vote -- apparently because they were planning to spend less than $50,000 on a search firm. What happened, however, to the public’s right to know their rationale for a national search, the qualifications they were looking for and, presumably, the mistakes to avoid after failing in the last national search to agree on a final candidate. It was left to a city spokeswoman to summarize the process without any of the thinking behind it by the councilmembers themselves – she, like the press, wasn’t allowed in the meeting, either.
COME CLEAN ON HARASSMENT
Recently, we’ve encountered the same privacy and personnel excuse when seeking records and claims involving sexual harassment. Human resource officials contend that to release the complaints and subsequent investigations would discourage future victims and witnesses from coming forward. But the Daily Sun, like most newspapers, doesn’t care if those names and other personal details are redacted. What’s important is learning about specific behaviors that affect a public workplace and what officials are doing to correct them. Simply releasing the number of complaints and generally how they were resolved doesn’t add much to the public’s understanding of how their government works – or doesn’t.
In light of such stonewalling and the expense involved in filing legal appeals to pry loose the information, we’ve become intrigued with an experiment in Iowa. In 2012, the General Assembly there approved the creation of the Iowa Public Information Board. The board has the authority to issue both informal advice and declaratory orders with the force of law regarding the state’s open meetings and record laws.
Since taking effect in 2013, the board has been able to mediate public record disputes and to help many of those fighting for access to information and to avoid costly legal fees.
The board reduced the need for and the extra expense of litigation. It also provides protection for government employees who follow the advice of the board.
Arizona is known for its generally strong public meeting and open records laws. But it shouldn’t require deep pockets to have them enforced. A neutral board such as the one in Iowa may be worth a try. A little more sunshine, even in Arizona, wouldn’t hurt.