Unlike many cities that foot virtually the entire bill for their performing and display arts programs, Scottsdale has for 20 years contracted with the private Scottsdale Cultural Council, which raises most of its own money.
Most, but not all. City taxpayers provide about $4 million, or slightly more than one-third, of the council’s annual budget, which poses the question of how much of a right of access to information on how that money is spent does the public have.
Under a recent judicial interpretation of state public records laws, that right is restricted. The Cultural Council recently prevailed in Maricopa County Superior Court, where a Valley newspaper had challenged its policy of keeping confidential some records. The court’s decision was to the effect that despite the comparative size of the public contribution to its annual budget, the council remains a private entity not subject to those laws allowing public access.
That view underlies a revised policy the Cultural Council’s board of trustees approved last week that keeps secret many records regarding employee performance, amounts contributed by donors and the processes for selecting trustees. To the board’s credit, it voluntarily allows much if not most of what it does to be accessible in the form of records and the holding of its meetings. The areas of confidentiality are few, but they are areas that remain of concern to taxpayers.
These are important concerns at a time when the council is requesting millions of dollars from the city to renovate the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, which the city owns but which the council maintains and books performances. Equally important is the concern that, as the Tribune’s Lindsay Butler reported Thursday, 10 months after chief executive officer Frank Jacobson retired in June — the Cultural Council has had an interim CEO since — its trustees formally began the search for a permanent successor.
While Scottsdale taxpayers benefit from arts programs that are mostly privately funded, so long as there are direct public contributions to those programs, those taxpayers will have limited access to information on how their money is being spent there. As much as the council is to be praised for its voluntary acts of openness, openness in spending public funds should never be a voluntary act, but a compulsory one. As we have said previously in this space, if this important public policy consideration cannot be fully achieved under current law, so it has to be achieved by contract.
We repeat that while under law such information may be kept secret, it is time for the City Council to approve renegotiating Scottsdale’s 1987 agreement to put in writing rights of access for the public as well as an aggressive plan to ultimately wean the Cultural Council from taxpayer funding.