The Arizona-based Goldwater Institute (GI) announced Wednesday that it had filed a lawsuit against the city of Phoenix for refusing a public records request relating to union records.
“The public’s business should be done in public, not behind closed doors,” says GI staff attorney Parker Jackson, lead attorney on the case. “The city of Phoenix has a duty to comply with state law—and the city’s own code—so that residents can find out what their government is up to.”
The city of Phoenix is hiding union records from the public.
That's why we're suing.
Read about what we're doing to fight for government transparency: https://t.co/6hoVwBwYbT
— Goldwater Institute (@GoldwaterInst) March 2, 2023
Under Phoenix City Code, a “meet and confer” process occurs when the city and a labor union organization produce a memorandum of understanding (MOU). The MOU works as a contract between the city and the union. Public-sector unions must submit their draft MOU to the city and the city clerk as a public record before December 1st, before any year when a new contract will be made.
Moreover, the city allows the union to present its draft MOU at a Phoenix City Council meeting on December 8th. The council allows the public to comment on the proposals at the next meeting.
However, as the Phoenix New Times reported, this did not occur with some unions in 2022, including the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association (PLEA). In 2020, the PLEA did submit a MOU for presentation and public comment, but the current contract ends in July 2023. However, rather than offer a draft MOU by the December deadline, the PLEA submitted a letter stating its intent to negotiate a new contract, and no public presentation was made.
In a statement emailed to The Arizona Sun Times, Jackson said the public may still have a chance to see the final contract but not the process of getting to it.
“The public should have an opportunity to comment on the final version when it is presented to the City Council for adoption. However, the damage will have already been done, as the public will have been shut out of the entire negotiation process. The point of the city code and Arizona’s Public Records Law is to have public comment inform the negotiations, rather than have negotiations happen in the dark and then seek public comment only after the fact,” Jackson said.
According to the complaint, the contract with PLEA will “include crucial issues of public importance,” including how police services will be provided and funded in Phoenix. At the December 14th Phoenix City Council meeting, several citizens shared concerns about the lack of transparency surrounding the PLEA contract.
Therefore, the GI made a public records request to Phoenix. The institute asked for all draft MOUs between the city and PLEA, any negotiated proposals, and communications regarding the lack of a MOU presented by the deadline. In response, the city only provided documents for the third request and denied the GI access to the drafts and proposals. The GI continued to push for the records, but an attorney for the city said that the MOU was not yet finalized and that revealing proposals would “hinder the negotiations process” and would not be in the “best interests” of the city.
However, the GI argues this does not legally justify withholding the documents. According to the complaint, governmental entities must “specifically demonstrate” how a competing interest overcomes the presumption to disclose a public record. The institute argued that the PLEA MOU is an item of public interest and that the “best interests” of the city should include the public’s interests. Therefore, the GI stated that the city has no justifiable reason to withhold the records and requested the court compel the city to comply with the records request.
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Neil Jones is a reporter for The Arizona Sun Times and The Star News Network. Follow Neil on Twitter. Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Phoenix City Hall” by Azwatchdog. CC BY-SA 3.0.