A bill currently being reviewed by the Senate could reform public records laws in Arizona to allow cities and towns like Marana and Oro Valley to start charging to process requests that take more than eight hours to compile.
House Bill 2419, sponsored by Rep. David Stevens, R-Sierra Vista, would allow government agencies to charge $20 per hour after the first eight hours. The bill would not make agencies charge for requests for the first eight hours.
While Jocelyn Bronson, the Marana town clerk, said she doesn’t feel the municipality needs such a law in place, Oro Valley Town Clerk Julie Bower said the bill would be helpful in deterring broad and unfocused public records requests.
In Marana, Bronson said the bill would impact less than 20 public records requests each year. The Marana town clerk added that the general public and media outlets would not be affected, as their requests usually take less than a few hours to produce.
However, Bronson cited some instances where it has taken days, or even weeks, to produce some requests. One instance she recalled was a large request that was more than $300 on a per page basis, and the request was never collected.
Knowing this bill would change the law around public records, Bower assured that the Town of Oro Valley will always have an open and transparent approach to its public records. She said she is in favor of the bill.
“For the most part, the vast majority would not be affected by this, because most records request are very specific and they don’t take us very long to process,” Bower said. “But there is an opportunity for abuse because we get a lot of requests from the same people, and they are overly broad requests that take hours to fulfill. I think this bill could maybe address that a little bit.”
Oro Valley received 119 records requests in January and 51 in February. Of those 170 requests, three took more than eight hours to produce. One took 12 hours, another took 18 hours and 20 minutes, and the third took 24 hours.
“It is a solution in search of a problem,” said Dan Barr, an attorney for the First Amendment Coalition of Arizona.
Barr said the bill sweeps too broadly and would allow public bodies to charge prohibitive fees for access to public documents, though the bill comes across as one that only will affect gadflys, which is the term used to describe someone who persistently challenges people in positions of power. It will create problems where problems don’t exist.
“If you have some gadfly saying ‘Give me every public document concerning arrests in your community for the past 10 years, and do so within the next week,’ the public body doesn’t have to do that,” Barr said.
Barr believes government agencies don’t refuse these types of requests out of fear that something bad could happen, like being sued.
“When asked if any of these horrible things have actually happened, the answer is no,” Barr said. “And to me, if these events haven’t happened, that tells you something about the lack of need of legislation.”
While organizations such as the Arizona Newspaper Association have expressed opposition to the bill, the Arizona League of Cities and Towns support it.
HB 2419 cleared the initial committee review in a 7-2 vote. One of those voting to move the board forward was Rep. Adam Kwasman, R-Oro Valley.
Kwasman said Stevens is currently working to redraft some of the bill’s wording before it goes before the House for an official vote. There is no set timeline for when the House and Senate might vote on the measure.
Rep. Stevens could not be reached for comment by press time.