Clouds Over Sunshine

State Senate leadership talks up government openness--and then gives the press the boot

At a Sunshine Week press conference on March 16, state Senate President Bob Burns, R-Peoria, talked about all the great things the Legislature has done to make government more transparent.

Then he threw the journalists who cover the Legislature out into the streets.

For the dozen or so journalists who rent their desks in the Senate building's press office, the eviction was no big surprise. Senate Republicans sent a notice in November warning that journalists would soon be booted from the office they have used since the late-1970s, because the ballooning Republican Party needed a bigger caucus room.

Sunshine Week is an open-government initiative sponsored by various civic groups, libraries and media outlets. This year, it was observed March 15-21.

Ironically, Burns used the Sunshine Week press conference to kill the idea that senators would find space for a new press office somewhere on the premises.

Inside the press office, nobody whispers or uses formal titles. Nearly every surface is covered with stacks of paper, newspaper clippings and yellowing political stickers. In contrast, caucus rooms are full of bare tables and chairs. According to attorney David J. Bodney, who focuses on government affairs and public policy, the caucus rooms are a quazi-open zone where legislators have given themselves an exemption to the open-meetings law.

"It means they don't have to comply with the notice and agenda provisions," Bodney explains. "But they do have to have open meetings. So they don't have to tell us when they're having them or where they're having them, but they do have to have them openly."

Howard Fischer, of Capitol Media Services, is the dean of the capitol press corps; he has been covering the Legislature from the office in the Senate building since 1982. Fischer's not nostalgic about losing the office, but he knows his job will be a lot harder without a desk inside the building.

"There's a law of physics," Fischer says, "which says something along the lines of: Simply the act of watching a process changes it. ... I think that's true of government. I think the fact that we're here, and they know we're here, and that we're watching them, perhaps keeps them from doing certain things"

Lawmakers pull a lot of tricks, he says, including making decisions in private during "serial meetings."

"What they do," Fischer says at his cluttered desk, "is they bring in four or five lawmakers at a time, not enough to be a quorum of any committee or any group, and they'll have a discussion behind closed doors. Is it legal? Yes. There are many ways to get around the open-meetings law.

"Is it right? I can't tell you what's right or wrong. I can tell my readers what the process is, and that's part of what being here is about--to tell them that this budget was put together not based on some public meeting. ... It was put together by the leadership in small group meetings behind closed doors."

Negotiations are underway with Speaker of the House Kirk Adams, R-Mesa, for a possible press office in the House building, but nothing is set. A last resort for the press would be to move into an office building a few blocks away.

"We're watchdogs; that's really what we are," Fischer says. "And a watchdog is much better being in the place you want watched rather than two blocks away. A watchdog at your neighbor's house doesn't do any good if your house is being burglarized."

Sen. Jonathan Paton, a Tucson Republican, calls the decision to evict journalists from the Senate building "stupid" and is quick to mention that he has shared his opinion with the leadership.

"I don't look at journalists as the problem," he says. "I look at stupid decision-making as the problem."

However, Paton says that caucuses rarely meet without notification. The caucus schedule is regularly updated online, and almost all of the Legislature's official activities--except caucuses--are archived in video on their Web site.

"The closed caucuses are so rare; I don't think it's that big of a deal," Paton says. "It's just basically like having a talk in the locker room so we can all move together. Big deal."

The serial meetings happen in the interest of expediency, not hiding from the public, he says, and decisions made in the meetings--which are held by both parties--aren't set in stone.

"They're not going to stop doing them," Paton says. "And you probably couldn't get anything done if you didn't talk to members individually like that."

But Attorney General Terry Goddard doesn't think the Legislature's open-meetings practices keep with the spirit of Sunshine Week and open government.

"(Legislators) are, by their own direction, exempt (from some open-meetings laws)," he says. "And I don't think that's a good policy, but that is, in fact, the one that has been set up by the legislative body. ... I think the intent, which is very clearly stated, is that the business of the public be done in public and be transparent."

Arizona has a pretty shoddy history with public records as well, according to David Cuillier, a UA School of Journalism professor and the Society of Professional Journalists' freedom of information chair.

"Arizona's ranked low," he says. "(There are) lots of loopholes, lots of issues in our law that make it easy for the government to hide information that they find embarrassing."

Back at the press office, reporters joke about record-request denials, and almost everyone has a story.

During Sunshine Week, Mary Jo Pitzl, an Arizona Republic reporter, sent a records request to Sen. Pamela Gorman, R-Anthem, asking for e-mails between fellow members of the Appropriations Committee over a three-day period. Gorman immediately denied the request and said disclosure would violate the confidentiality that legislators need to discuss appropriations.

"I asked for it Monday, and they had a response to me by the end of the day Monday. So they were very quick, I do thank them for the prompt response," Pitzl says, adding that she doesn't usually have a problem getting records from the Legislature.

The Republic's attorneys are responding to the denial, Pitzl says.