It came as no surprise to me when I read the headline “76% of States Fail at FOI Responsiveness” and saw where Arizona ranked in the policy report. The Better Government Association, a self-described independent, non-partisan government watchdog group committed to fighting waste, corruption and inefficiency in government, released a study at the end of 2008 ranking all of the states according to their Freedom of Information laws and responsiveness.
The conductors of the study defined benchmarks upon which each state would be measured in an objective and accurate manner:
- How long it took for a response
- What remedies were in place to appeal decisions of denial
- What opportunities of expediency are there for the court to review an appeal due to time constraints
- What are the penalties to government agencies for violating the laws for denial of access to public documents — covering attorney’s fees and costs to sanctions.
Here are the results of the study and notice where Arizona ranks. Yes, you read that correctly. We are near the bottom of the list in a very dark basement garnering only 22% out of 100% in satisfying the criteria.
Now, you may be asking yourself, why would you post an old article (from 2008) about transparency and FOI requests. Well, I will give you the first reason — NOTHING has changed in the FOI laws since this study has been released.
The second reason is tied directly to one of our projects on government contracts. In February, we sent FOI requests to 10 government agencies requesting information on their contracting practices and to determine the contracts each government agencies have. Specifically, we asked for a list of all recent government contracts with the following information: whether contract was open bid or sole source, who the vendor was, how much the contract was for and what goods or services the vendor was providing.
Let me give you an update. We are still waiting for all of the responses to come back nearly two months later. We understand that budget cuts and the loss of personnel have dramatically influenced getting work done. If we lost a staff member, we would certainly feel it around here. The only problem with that line of thinking is that departments and agencies have entire divisions devoted solely to financial record keeping whether we are talking about accounts receivable or accounts payable. Furthermore, our request in and of itself was not intricate but rather straightforward — you spend money, show me where.
As we wait, patiently as we can, for the remaining agencies to supply the simple data we have requested, we can’t help but think that this study echoes a real problem for all taxpayers. Freedom of Information laws must have a reasonable response timer in place here in Arizona, not only because of the transparency and accountability to the taxpayers, but also because it will provide a very bright light out of the very dark basement of where our state ranks nationally.