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The Phoneys VI 

As a taxpayer, you pay big bucks for public information officers--some helpful, some not

Before presenting the prestigious Phoney awards for the sixth year in a row, the Tucson Weekly interviewed local, state and federal public information officers. Among other duties, these spokespeople are employed to answer inquiries posed by anyone, including the media.

Eighteen PIOs were telephoned by a crack Weekly correspondent and asked two simple questions: How many people work in public information for the agency, and what's the public-information department's annual budget? The real reason for the call, of course, was to determine their responsiveness.

Those who succeeded, and failed, in delivering the information in a timely fashion are:


QUICK AND THOROUGH

Three agencies excelled in answering the questions, calling back quickly while offering detailed explanations of how their money is spent.

· Tucson Water took only 35 minutes to report the agency has eight people, including some who deal with conservation, along with a $1.6 million budget, a third of which goes to salaries, with the balance going to conservation programs, public outreach, printing, etc.

· The Pima Association of Governments/Regional Transportation Authority has 2 1/2 people working in communications and spends $239,000 annually. Officials needed a mere 45 minutes to supply that information.

· The UA Health Sciences Public Affairs Office answered the fastest--in 25 minutes--saying it has nine people and a total budget of $780,374, of which $579,407 is for staffing. They had an advantage, though, since they guessed the real purpose of the call.

THE WINNER IS: Everybody. When PIOs do their job, the public can easily find out more about what their government is doing.


WE'LL GET RIGHT BACK TO YOU

There were four offices that were a little slower to respond, possibly because they had to research their financial figures.

· The 10-person UA Communications Office took 22 hours to answer the budget question, which is $616,612.

· One and a half people staff the public information office of City Manager Mike Hein, and it took 25 hours to convey the office's budget of $126,000.

· Two people earning a total of $106,840 work in public information for the Tucson Department of Transportation. The remainder of the budget, $693,170, is spent for public outreach, studies and other things. This information required 48 hours to convey.

· It took 30 hours to learn that the Arizona Department of Transportation's Phoenix office employs three people with an annual budget of $234,000.

THE PHONEY GOES TO: The public. When governmental agencies provide answers in a timely fashion, taxpayers come out on top.


SLOWER, BUT PROFESSIONAL

Two offices were a little tardy with their answers, but came through in the end.

· The Tucson Parks Department initially indicated that answering the budget question could take a while, since the person with that information was out. So the department needed 94 hours to say its two PIOs have a total budget of $298,130.

· It took the Pima County Department of Transportation 76 hours to state it has six employees and a budget of $297,627, 90 percent of which goes to salaries. But a representative also explained that the office helps with flood control, public works and issues regarding parks and recreation issues.

THE PRIZE IS PRESENTED TO: Taxpayers. Government information belongs to the public, and they should get it, even if it takes some time.


WHAT IS IT ABOUT THE COPS?

Only two agencies asked for a written inquiry about the questions.

· The Tucson Police Department wanted a Freedom of Information request before revealing--71 hours after the original call--that the department has 4 1/2 staff people working in public information with a budget of $325,736.

· An e-mail was requested by the Pima County Sheriff's Department, which said 49 hours after first being contacted that the department has one person working in public information, but there's not a budget per se, since the sole expense is a salary of $26.61 per hour.

THE AWARD GOES TO: Nobody. Throwing up unnecessary roadblocks to obtaining public information discourages people from finding out what their government is doing.


FORTHCOMING, LIKE THEY SHOULD BE

Three offices not only answered the employee question quickly, but went out of their way to provide salary information on their PIOs.

· The Arizona Department of Administration returned the phone call in 31 minutes and reported their lone person, who also works as a legislative liaison, makes $88,263.

· The Arizona Department of Gaming has one communications manager, and the office took seven hours to say that the person has a salary of $69,900.

· Davis-Monthan Air Force Base has five people working in public affairs, and in 55 hours supplied a chart of military salaries covering them.

THIS CATEGORY'S WINNER IS: Inquisitive individuals. Even though not pressed for the salary data, these three agencies provided it willingly. That is a good example of public information officers doing their jobs.


IS THAT ANY OF YOUR BUSINESS?

Three PIOs swiftly answered the staffing question, but didn't provide a budget figure. Instead, they said their budgets include only salaries, but did not offer that information.

· Gov. Janet Napolitano's office took 33 minutes to reply that she has four people working in public information.

· The Tucson Unified School District has one person working in the field, and that question was answered immediately.

· The Arizona Department of Health Services also took the initial phone call, and replied there were two people.

THE PHONEY IS PRESENTED TO: Nobody. By not completely responding to the questions, these agencies kept the public in the dark.


DON'T BOTHER US; WE'RE BUSY

Only one agency didn't return the Weekly's original phone call, nor did representatives respond to a follow-up attempt six days later.

Thus, the Arizona Department of Education is presented with a failing report card for ignoring the very people it is funded to inform.

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