The Arizona Legislature finally has decided to take a closer look at how local governments comply with laws intended to allow anyone to track how our tax dollars are spent and how public policies are made. The Legislature has directed the state ombudsman-citizens’ aide to investigate when someone suspects a city, county or school district is violating Arizona’s sweeping open-records and open-meeting laws.
For a decade, the ombudsman has been an independent watchdog of state agencies, with the authority to check into accusations of mistreatment by interviewing government employees and issuing subpoenas for records.
This largely unknown office can’t punish anyone, but it can call attention to government misdeeds and frequently has prompted agencies to change their policies with little fanfare.
“Our experience has been if it’s a legitimate gripe, then the agency will work with us to resolve it,” said Patrick Shannanan, who has been the state ombudsman since the office was created in 1996.
Now, for the first time, lawmakers have empowered Shannanan to look into complaints about local governments from people who believe they have been wrongly denied access to records, or that meetings are being held illegally behind closed doors.
The ombudsman’s new role came about after a three-year lobbying effort by the Arizona Newspapers Association to address the most serious weakness in the state’s sunshine statutes — compelling governments to obey the law.
The state attorney general’s office investigates potential violations of the open meetings requirements. But officeholders of both parties have said they didn’t have the time or money to address concerns about illegally withheld public documents.
This has been a particular problem among law enforcement agencies and smaller local governments, as uncovered in several cooperative investigations by the state’s media.
But the only answer before now was to sue the local government in question, an expensive proposition that bureaucrats know will keep many people from challenging their secrecy.
Starting Jan. 1, Shannanan will have $185,000 and two new employees who will work full-time on these issues. Along with formal investigations, the ombudsman’s office will develop an education campaign to instruct local officials on how the sunshine laws should work, and to teach the public about its rights to an open government.
And the ombudsman will report each year to the governor and the Legislature about the complaints it has received.
So our state leaders should get a clearer picture of how local governments handle their duties under our sunshine laws.