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Sunshine Week not so sunny in Phoenix

By Howard Fischer

Phoenix, AZ – Republican state senators had a press conference Monday to talk
about what they were doing to promote openness in government. But it didn't exactly
go the way they wanted.

Monday's event came at the beginning of Sunshine Week, pushed by
the American Society of Newspaper Editors to educate the public
about the importance of open government and freedom of
information. Senate Majority Whip Pam Gorman said Republicans
have some bills to promote that, like requiring the state,
counties cities and towns to have searchable databases of
receipts and expenses, new requirement for posting of open
meeting notices on the Internet and making it illegal to provide
false information or withhold information from public officials,
boards or commissions. But Gorman balked when asked about the
practice of having a few lawmakers at a time in her office to
discuss the budget, a move that gets around requirements in the
law that meetings of a majority of any public body be open.

"Are you suggesting that this is a reality show and there should
be a camera on my back at all times? No. I think there are times
when I have conversations one-on-one with a member. And I know
the culture is common now to think that you follow us everywhere.
You want to go to lunch with me? You want to go to the bathroom
with me? I don't know where you want to go."

The issue historically, though, is not one-on-one conversations
but small group meetings. In fact, Senate President Bob Burns
said Monday he planned to have some of those with other lawmakers
to deal with the proposed budget for the coming year. Gorman,
however, said she does not see a problem with that.

"We have open meeting laws that require if any decision-making is
going on where a vote can be taken and a majority of the members
that can take the vote are in the room, that is where the Open
Meeting Law is covered. As you know, the Legislature's not
technically under the Open Meeting Laws. However, in the spirit
of transparency we still abide by them."

That's only partly correct. The law does apply to meetings of the
Legislature and its committees. Political caucuses are exempt.
But the Senate's own rules make those caucuses subject to the
law, with exceptions for things like getting legal advice,
personnel matters and choosing their own party leaders. Gorman
said she sees the meetings she has with other GOP senators no
different than reporters meeting with their publishers.

"Sometimes you have discussions that may never come to fruition.
No decision is made. You're just bantering about. That's not part
of open government. That's part of just the process."

Nor was she dissuaded when one reporter suggested the comparison
was invalid.

"No you're not public officials. But as you know, the decisions
you guys make about what to write affect the public."

Gorman's defense of the small group meetings wasn't the only
discussion about Sunshine Week and open government at Monday's
press conference. Senate President Bob Burns took the opportunity
to announce that there would no longer be space in the building
for reporters to have offices to write and file their stories.
Burns wants what's the current press room for a new caucus room
for Senate Republicans.

But up until Monday there had been some
hope that other space would be freed up, either in the Senate or
the Old Capitol, for the approximately a dozen reporters who
cover state government on a full time basis. Burns said that was
not to be -- and reporters who have paid rent to the Senate will
need to find some private office space off the Capitol grounds by
the end of June. Unless Burns changes his mind, this could be the
first time in nearly 50 years that reporters do not have a work
space at the Legislature.