Ariz. court tosses district's harassment suit against parents who asked for records

ARIZONA — TheArizona Court of Appeals has upheld a lower court’s dismissal of a case broughtby a small school district seeking to bar a group of women from requestingpublic records.

Congress Elementary School District filed the lawsuit inYavapai County Superior Court in January 2010 against four women to preventthem from filing requests without first getting permission from a judge. Thelower court dismissed the case in April 2010.

Jean Warren, Jennifer Hoge, Cyndi Regis and Barbara Rejonfiled about 100 public records requests over the last decade, as well ascomplaints to the state ombudsman, the state Department of Education and theArizona Attorney General’s Office.

The district argued the records requests “constituted apublic nuisance, harassment … and an abuse of public records statutes,”according to the March 31 appeals court decision.

Carrie Ann Sitren, attorney for the Goldwater InstituteScharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation in Phoenix, whichrepresented the women, said most of the documents are meeting minutes andagendas, as well as records some of the women requested related to discipline,attendance or counseling of their own children or grandchildren.

“These are really basic documents that everyone should haveaccess to, especially these women who live in the town,” she said. “They aretaxpayers in the school district, they have children in the school district andtheir interest in the activities of the school district should be applauded andencouraged.”

In addition, the district claimed the defendants’ requests“required review of nearly 9,000 pages of documents and consumed more than 417hours.”

“If what the district alleged is true, if it really did takethat long, then there are some serious problems that need to be fixed by thisschool district,” Sitren said. “It shouldn’t take going through 700 pages ofrecords to pull the school district’s budget they approved that year.”

A 2009 inquiry by the Arizona Ombudsman–Citizens’Aide found the school district in compliance; however, there was concern “thatDistrict staff does not fully understand its responsibilities and obligationsunder Arizona’s Public Records Law.”

Sparked by a separate complaint, a review by an Arizonaassistant attorney general in 2007 found the school board violated the stateopen meeting law one time out of three alleged violations. In the earliestreview in 2002, an assistant attorney general found the school board “does notunderstand the requirements for a proper agenda” and “failed to keepappropriate minutes.”

Arizona’s open meeting law requires agendas be posted atleast 24 hours before a meeting, Sitren said. The district does have a websitebut they don’t post school board information there. She said agendas are postedto a bulletin board that is inaccessible after school hours.

Charles Davis, an associate professor at the University ofMissouri School of Journalism who studies freedom of information, said if thiscase isn’t the first instance of a school system suing its own constituentsover public records requests, it’s definitely rare.

“If you’re going to have open government, it’s not going tobe without costs,” he said. “One of them is the potential for someone to misusepublic records laws for what public officials might feel is malice or revengeor some other agenda, and my take on that is that it’s a cost we have to bear.”

Davis said the case is troubling because it could haveestablished a precedent useable in a variety of ways against recordsrequestors.

In its initial complaint, the district said if theinjunction against the women was not granted, it would face a “financialburden,” and either be forced to file individual lawsuits requesting permissionto deny requests or outright deny requests “and wait to be sued.”

Sitren said, based on records requests of invoices for schooldistrict attorneys, it looks like the district spent $100,000 on the case. Theschool district will also have to pay attorney’s fees to the GoldwaterInstitute, per the appeals court ruling.

“We certainly hope that they won’t put further taxpayermoney into a lawsuit like this when the law is absolutely clear,” she said.

Davis said he had a problem equating FOI requests withharassment. He said he sees open government as an investment, rather than acost.

“The district makes it seem like these are terriblyunreasonable people,” he said. “When you hear the people themselves quoted inthe paper they don’t sound as terribly unreasonable as they’re being portrayedby city officials.”

Sitren said securing the appeal was important to let“governments know they cannot bully people who are doing their civic duty.”

The school district has until April 30 to file an appeal tothe Supreme Court. Calls to Franklin Hoover, the school district’s attorney,weren’t returned.