Their records are your records

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Citizens across the nation have the right to access government information at all levels. However, it's not always easy to get records and often it's the person behind the counter's lack of knowledge that prevents it.

"It's not unusual to walk in and get a blank stare," said Patrick Shannahan, Arizona's Ombudsman-Citizens' Aide. "A lot of times, the lower level you go to, at school districts or a police station or small town, the people there aren't really trained a lot in what their responsibilities are."

The West Valley View asked Amanda Seeley, an 18-year-old Waddell resident, to approach several government entities and ask for specific public records - sort of an informal test of how municipalities and school districts respond to requests for records.

Seeley met a range of responses, including an outright denial at one police station to another's producing the record on the spot.

"Most of them were pretty helpful so it makes it pretty easy to ask for records," Seeley said. "The wait time is kind of iffy. So you never really know when you are going to get the records."

Several times the person Seeley spoke to first at the front desk would not know what to do with her request. Often, they called several people before finding someone to help, she said.

"It would just make sense, as part of your training for the people behind the counter who deal with the public who are the public's first contract to know what to do," Shannahan said.

Let the sun shine
This is National Sunshine Week , which came about in 2002, when the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors created "Sunshine Sunday." The newspapers called attention to the Florida Legislature's efforts to pass new exceptions to public records law. Several Sunshine Sundays are credited with thwarting 300 proposed exemptions to open-government laws, according to sunshineweek.org.

In 2005, the American Society of Newspaper Editors sponsored the first National Sunshine Week .

Citizens in Arizona can access public records upon request, with few exemptions. Arizona Public Records Law states "public records and other matters in the custody of any officer shall be open to inspection by any person at all times during office hours."

"They have to [provide it] if you ask for it," Shannahan said.

Public agencies are required to "promptly" provide requested information. Access to a public record is deemed denied if a custodian fails to promptly respond, according to state law.

Help when you need it
For anyone kept out of a public meeting, or who has gotten a blank stare, or has been kept waiting - and waiting - for a record - there is someone to turn to.

Under a law that took effect Dec. 31, 2006, a legislative office took on the job of reviewing inquiries and complaints regarding public re cords and open meetings.

Shannahan said his office's duties include giving advice, investigating and making findings and recommendations.

The office has beefed up its Web site and has links to many cities' public records request forms and a "how-to" list of seven steps to get public records.

"If they follow through that, and track through those seven steps they should be successful. If not, they should call us," he said. "We make it as easy as we can for people to get access to public records."

Access given, access denied
Seeley walked into Avondale's main police station March 6 and asked for a record of calls police responded to on Jan. 24-25, 2008.

"They had no idea what I was talking about," Seeley said.

She explained to the women in the reception area that she wanted to see a list of calls, or a call log, that police responded to on those dates, Seeley said. She was directed to a telephone and an operator listened to her request and sent her to Renata Garcia in the police records department.

"She asked me if I was a property owner. I said 'no' and she said only the property owner could request information," Seeley said. "I asked her, 'Can't I just get a list of calls?' and she said, 'There isn't a call log.'"

After explaining her request to four people to no avail, Seeley said she felt frustrated and left.

Shannahan said Seeley's experience is not uncommon.

"That situation is one where they could call us and we call the department and say, 'yes, you have a record of calls people make to your office,'" he said. "Sometimes if they don't want to give it out or don't want to be inconvenienced, they'll play dumb."

Seeley later went to the Tolleson Police Department with the same request. After asking her what she needed, it took Tanya Rogers about 15 minutes to find a form for Seeley to fill out. She handed back the completed form and Rogers returned a few minutes later with the list of calls.

"They actually gave me the record right then and there, I liked that," Seeley said.

Rebecca I. Allen can be reached by e-mail at rallen@westvalleyview.com.

Arizona Ombudsman-Citizens' Aide

Denied a public record? Kept out of a public meeting? The ombudsman's office can help.

602-277-7292 or 1-800-872-2879 www.azleg.gov/ombudsman

e-mail: ombuds@azoca.gov

By: 
Rebecca I. Allen
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