PHOENIX — Open government advocates found hope late this week after the governor reopened his daily calendar for public inspection and the legislature began discussions to change the language of a bill that allows most state business to be conducted behind closed doors.
Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, the sponsor of SB 1435, said the bill will be amended so people would know the legislation’s true intent, which she believes is being misrepresented in the media.
“Hopefully we’ll amend it and then see how that works,” Allen said. “I’m just not sure what the [new] language is going to be, yet.”
The bill would change the definition of open meetings to allow members of an elected board to discuss pending action in private. Only when they take action, such as a vote, would they have to be in the public’s eye.
Arizona’s open meeting law currently requires that any time a quorum of an elected body meets to “discuss, propose or take legal action,” that meeting must be in public.
No hearing has yet been scheduled for the bill. “It’s going to happen pretty soon or it won’t happen,” Allen said.
This comes on the heels of criticism over Gov. Doug Ducey’s decision to remove the visitor logs from his office. Daniel Scarpinato, a spokesman for Ducey, said the logs were first removed because they were inaccurate, but they have since been returned.
“We recognized that some information is better than none,” Scarpinato said. “It was a response to wanting to be as transparent as possible.”
Dan Barr, an attorney with the First Amendment Coalition of Arizona, said the actions represent government officials’ desire to have less transparency in conducting their business.
“They view openness as a sort of bother to them,” Barr said. “There’s a cynicism there that people are just not going to care.”
He added that he is unaware of any other action being taken across the country that is quite as “drastic” as Allen’s bill.
“Usually these types of bills try to cut back on the requirement of notice or seek to expand the definition of what you can discuss in executive session, but to simply rewrite the open meetings law and say that anything than other than when you’re taking a vote on an issue doesn’t have to be open to the public is pretty extreme,” Barr said.
David Bodney, a media law attorney at Ballard Spahr, said that by not letting the public see the process of how officials consider actions, it like getting the cake without being able to see any of the ingredients.
“This thwarts the public’s right to monitor the activities of government by forbidding public access to the deliberations of their elected officials,” Bodney said.
Editorial boards across the state have denounced the bill. Paula Casey, executive director of the Arizona Newspapers Association, said the bill would gut the state’s open meetings law as it is now and ANA is in opposition to SB 1435.
Allen and supporters argue that it would allow smaller governing boards in rural areas of the state to discuss business without being caught up in the requirement to meet in public.
Sen. Carlyle Begay, D-Ganado, a co-sponsor of the legislation, also said the intent of the bill has been misconstrued in the media since it was introduced.
“A lot of people are voicing concern about transparency in the government and we definitely understand that,” he said. “We’re getting feedback from different stakeholders and different legal opinions on how we could better address what our underlying goal is.”
Allen said she has also been getting a lot of feedback and when she sends a lengthy explanation to those who are concerned, they respond “Thank you, I see what you’re doing.”
Allen, who served on the five-member Navajo County Board of Supervisors, said she understands how tricky it is for these smaller member boards to discuss their business. She said, for example, on a three-member board, if two members meet in private and discuss official business, they would be in violation of the open meetings law.
“I feel like that restrictiveness affected my ability to be a good public servant and to be able to be fully involved in my job,” she said.
Late last month, House Republicans received similar criticism when they voted on a rule change that would allow for closed caucus meetings. The vote on the rule change fell down party lines with Democrats in strong opposition, saying that the move shuts the public out and harms the democratic process in the Legislature.
Ethan McSweeney is the Bolles Fellow covering the state legislature for Arizona Sonora News, a service provided by the School of Journalism at the University of Arizona. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org