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Bill seeks to roll back open meetings law when officials aren’t taking action

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PHOENIX – Saying Arizona’s open meetings law stifles informal discussions, a state lawmaker wants to allow members of elected boards to talk out of the public eye when they aren’t set to take action.

Another lawmaker wants the names of officers who use deadly force to be kept from the public for up to 90 days, with the police union pressing for the change saying it would keep officers safer.

The bills are among at least five introduced this session that aim to remove information from the public record. Others would keep lottery winners’ names secret for 90 days, allow political candidates to request that their home addresses not be released and let former judges to keep their addresses and phone numbers secret.

SB 1435, introduced by Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, would require that only meetings where action, such as debating or voting, begins to take place be held in public. She said it’s difficult for members of elected bodies, especially those with three and five members, to talk without the threat of breaking the open meetings law.

She said she experienced that as one of five members of the Navajo County Board of Supervisors.

“I felt that this would really make for better government because – let’s put it this way, before you have to take legal action, work has to be done and it has to be done by the staff,” Allen said.

Arizona’s open meeting law requires that discussions, deliberations, considerations or consultations involving the majority of members of an elected body be held in public meetings.

“I absolutely want to protect the public, and I’m trying to protect the ability of the small-member boards and commissions, honestly, so they can be in the same room together,” Allen said.

David Cuillier, freedom of information chair for the Society of Professional Journalists and director of the University of Arizona School of Journalism, said the bill would “completely gut” Arizona’s open meetings law.

“You can’t have a democracy where the citizens are flying blind,” he said. “This is all about being able to hold our government accountable … We need to know how the sausage is being made.”

Dan Barr, an attorney specializing in media law, said the change would would defeat the purpose of Arizona’s open meetings law.

“The whole point of government transparency is for the public to not only assess what the government is doing but be involved in the process,” he said.

The bill would affect all governing bodies that fall under the open meetings law, including school boards. Chris Thomas, general counsel of the Arizona School Boards Association, said that while his organization doesn’t have a stance on the bill yet he considers it “very broad.”

“We don’t think that all discussion should be able to take place outside of a public meeting,” he said. “We would be concerned not only about the rights of the public but of the rights of the board minority.”

Allen’s bill was assigned to the Senate Government Committee but has yet to receive a hearing.

SB 1445, authored by Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, would allow law enforcement agencies to withhold the names of officers involved in incidents in which deadly force is used. Officials would be able to keep names secret for 90 days.

While Smith didn’t respond to a phone message seeking comment, Joe Clure, president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, which is calling for the change, said the legislation is a response to recent public backlash against officers involved in shootings in places such as Ferguson, Missouri.

“We just view it as an officer safety, family safety issue,” Clure said. “And that they literally have to go into hiding once a controversial issue or shooting occurs.”

Clure said oftentimes when officer-involved shootings occur, the public is quick to jump to conclusions.

“Relying upon the idea of a person’s innocence until proven guilty, that’s what we’re trying to protect,” he said. “We don’t think an officer or their family should be subjected to that danger.”

But Barr, the media attorney, said the bill would limit transparency and wind up making members of the public more upset.

“We entrust and give a lot of power to the police, allowing them to carry deadly force and use deadly force, and when they use it everything about that should be as transparent as possible,” he said. “So withholding it 90 days, all it does it get a lot of people upset.”

Cuillier said the bill would create more distrust toward the police and government.

“We can’t wait 90 days until the situation’s resolved,” he said. “By then it’s too late. We need to see our government in action while its in action.”

Smith’s bill was scheduled for a hearing Wednesday before the Senate Public Safety, Military and Technology Committee.