A superior court judge in Arizona’s rural Yavapai County dismissed a lawsuit and imposed sanctions against a local school district that had sought to prevent four resident taxpayers from requesting public information. The district had asked the judge to find the parents had harassed school officials and had no right to request records or sue the district, according to a report by a Phoenix think tank.
Instead, Judge David Mackey ruled in favor of the parents and lambasted district officials in his April 15 decision, saying the school district’s effort to forbid these particular taxpayers from requesting records “would require that the court re-write Arizona’s Public Records law.”
The Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute first reported the lawsuit in March, and Goldwater attorneys represented the parents free of charge in the case.
“Americans are a bit more secure in their rights without this lawsuit hovering over their right to access government records,” said Clint Bolick, director of the Goldwater Institute’s Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation. “Let’s hope this is the end of it.”
District Rebuffed Scrutiny
The lawsuit by the Congress Elementary School District alleged the parents harassed district officials by repeatedly requesting documents such as spending reports and the minutes of school meetings.
Mark Flatten, Goldwater’s in-house investigative reporter, says the district didn’t want to disclose information about how it spends taxpayer money or educates children.
“The defendants tell me there is an attitude among the board and the superintendent that they are the ones in charge of the school and they decide how the school is run,” Flatten explained. “Any sort of scrutiny or oversight is seen as unwelcome and is characterized by school officials as an attempt to undermine them and the school.”
“They do not welcome any sort of scrutiny or second-guessing,” Flatten said.
After fielding dozens of requests, district lawyers asked the Yavapai County Superior Court to bar parents Jean Warren, Cyndi Regis, Barbara Rejon, and Jennifer Hoge from filing any more public records queries. The district also wanted the court to prevent the parents from appealing to outside agencies, including the state ombudsman for public access and the attorney general’s office.
Flatten said Warren’s requests since 2007 have focused on getting to the bottom of suspected wastes of taxpayer money. Regis and Rejon objected to a uniform requirement and frequently challenged the district’s authority at board meetings.
Hoge filed a complaint with the state in 2003 concerning her son, who was a special-education student, but no longer lives in the district. Judge Mackey singled out Hoge’s circumstances in his ruling, noting the district apparently included her in its motion only because she is Warren’s daughter.
“Not only is that offensive to this Court’s sense of justice, but it is groundless, constitutes harassment and is not made in good faith,” Judge Mackey wrote in his ruling.
The parents said their children suffered retaliation at school after they began criticizing district policies.
The parents described school district tactics that forced the repeated requests. “The defendants all describe instances in which they request records, the district refuses to comply, they renew the requests and are told, among other things, that they didn’t specifically ask for the right information,” Flatten said.
“This triggers subsequent requests as they try to hit a moving target of asking for exactly the record, as the district classifies it, that they are seeking,” Flatten explained. “After numerous complaints about the district’s behavior to the ombudsman and attorney general, the district apparently decided a better course is to try to shut the residents down in court rather than comply with their legal requests for documents.”
“The district’s lawsuit characterizes these repeated attempts to obtain documents, as well as complaints to outside agencies, as harassment and a nuisance,” Flatten said.
The district argued it made more than 100,000 pages of documents available to the parents, but the parents say that isn’t true.
The problem, according to Bolick, is the documents were not relevant to the parents’ requests and were not disclosed in a timely manner as required by law.
“The school district is a serial violator of public records laws,” Bolick said. “I have never seen a case initiated by a governmental entity seeking to silence its critics by preventing them from seeking public records or filing legal claims.”
Requests ‘Are an Impediment’
It’s not unusual for residents to face hurdles when making open records requests, says Bob Weeks, who maintains the Voice for Liberty Blog, a free-market news source in Kansas. He says he has run into barriers in his home state.
“The president of the Wichita school board said to me in a public meeting that my records requests were a burden to the district that prevented it from educating children,” Weeks said.
“It’s evident that many public agencies would prefer to operate without scrutiny. Records requests are an important way to look under the cover and see what’s happening,” Weeks explained.
Weeks predicts battles over public records are likely to become more common. “As the traditional media is shrinking, with fewer resources available for investigative reporting, citizens need to step up and fill the gap,” he said.
Sarah McIntosh ([email protected]) teaches constitutional law and American politics at Wichita State University in Kansas.
For more information…
Judge David Mackey’s decision in Congress Elementary School District v. Jean Warren, et al.: http://www.heartland.org/schoolreform-news.org/Article/27509/Congress_Elementary_School_District_v_Jean_Warren_et_al.html
Goldwater’s Motion to Dismiss Congress School District v. Warren: http://www.schoolreform-news.org/Article/27434/