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News Link • Education: Government Schools

Congress, Ariz. School District Sues Taxpayers To Stop Questions (HUH!?!)

• goldwater institute
A handful of taxpayers in a small community north of Wickenburg, Arizona are being targeted by the local school district in a lawsuit that asks a judge to declare they have no right to request public records, sue the district, or complain to outside agencies.
The Congress Elementary School District claims that past efforts by these residents to obtain documents such as minutes of board meetings and spending reports amount to harassment that should not have to be tolerated. 
But Jean Warren, one of the four defendants named in the lawsuit filed January 28, 2010 [2], said the complaint is an illegal attempt to silence citizens who have questioned the district’s policies and spending practices. 

“The whole thing is based on trying to shut us down so that nobody has any rights,” Warren said. “Just because you live in a small area does not mean you don’t have rights. Everything I believe about the Constitution and what it means to be a citizen of the USA is being shot down.”
The school district has a history of violating state laws mandating government transparency, according to investigations dating to 2002 done by the Arizona attorney general and state ombudsman. In 2002 and again in 2007, the district was found to be in violation of the state’s open meeting law by the Attorney General’s Office. In June 2009, the state ombudsman’s office admonished the district for its slow response to public records requests.

Liz Hill, the assistant state ombudsman for public access, told the Goldwater Institute she is not aware of any other instance in which a government agency has filed a court action seeking to block citizens from even requesting public records that should otherwise be available. It is something that frustrated government officials have talked about, but to her knowledge none has ever followed through, said Hill, who did not want to comment on whether the district’s lawsuit is justified.

“There’s a lot of talk about entities going and getting injunctions or other kinds of protective orders not to have to respond to certain individuals or certain requests,” Hill said. “But I haven’t actually been aware of any specific case, just more the theory of it. This is the first time I’ve actually seen someone go and attempt to do it.”

Using courts to turn away requests

The district’s lawsuit acknowledges the documents that have been requested are not privileged or confidential, which means they are public records that normally should be disclosed. For the most part, the records sought were agendas and minutes of governing board meetings, spending reports, and records related to the defendants’ own children.

However, the district’s lawyer, Franklin Hoover, argues the repeated public records demands and requests for investigation filed with outside agencies are a costly nuisance and the district should not be forced to respond.
“Defendants have abused both the public records request and the administrative complaint system in order to harass the Plaintiff,” Hoover wrote in court motions. “Defendants’ requests and complaints were unduly burdensome due to the sheer volume of the records requiring preparation by the Plaintiff in response.”

The lawsuit asks a Yavapai County Superior Court judge to block Warren, Cyndi Regis, Barbara Rejon and Jennifer Hoge from filing any more public records requests. The district also wants a ruling that it does not have to comply with previous requests for public records, and an order restricting the right of Warren and others to file a lawsuit or complain to any outside agency, including the ombudsman and the attorney general.

All of the defendants are being represented by the Goldwater Institute Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation, which learned of the complaint shortly after it was filed.

Carrie Ann Sitren, a Goldwater Institute attorney, said the lawsuit is a clear attempt to silence people in the community who have been critical of the board’s actions, and have made good-faith attempts to ensure the district is spending taxpayer money wisely. The district’s actions go beyond violating government transparency laws; they amount to an affront on the First Amendment rights of citizens to free speech and to petition their government, Sitren said.

“In this case, the citizens in this community were exercising their rights,” Sitren said. “The board’s response was to try to threaten them into shutting up, and that is not what our system of government is supposed to be allowed to do.

“There is a good-faith intent by each of these people and in all of their actions to make the school better, to make it more efficient and to make the education of their children better. They never asked for a single document they didn’t have good reason to ask for. Under the law you don’t even need a good reason. These people had great reasons every time.”

Beyond defending the claim, Sitren said she will do whatever is necessary to ensure the district follows the state's public records law in the future.

“They’re obviously not following the law on their own,” she said.

School district officials refused to comment for this story, citing the Goldwater Institute’s decision to represent the defendants.

New school comes to Congress

Warren said she resents the suggestion that she is trying to harm the elementary school or harass district officials. She was an early supporter of building an elementary school in Congress. Before the school was built in 2001, students were bused to nearby Wickenburg.

Warren said she always has felt obliged to monitor how the district spends its money. Her involvement in the district’s business became more personal in September 2001, when her daughter, Jennifer Hoge, moved to the district from Glendale.

Hoge became dissatisfied with her son’s education plan by December 2002 and filed a complaint against the district that was later sustained by the Arizona Department of Education. Though she is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, Hoge has not lived in the district or filed any requests for documents in more than six years. The only documents Hoge requested from the district were records related to her son, which she is entitled to see under federal and state laws.

Warren said the run-in with the school superintendent over her grandson’s education plan made her skeptical of how the district was spending taxpayer money. In 2002, she began requesting copies of board minutes and agendas dating back to 2000, according to the lawsuit. By the district’s own reckoning, Warren filed four public records requests between June 21, 2002, and February 2003. In every case, the documents sought dealt with agendas and minutes, the most basic public records which all government agencies are required by law to make available.

The district was not properly posting governing board agendas or making minutes available to the public, as required by the state’s open meetings law, Warren said. That assertion was supported by an investigation conducted by the state Attorney General’s Office in 2002 that was triggered in part by complaints Warren filed.
In a letter of concern [3] issued Dec. 30, 2002, assistant attorney general Lisa Neuville says school officials broke the law by posting agendas that were vague and hard to find, by illegally using closed-door executive sessions to discuss public business, and by scheduling special meetings in an apparent attempt to make attendance inconvenient to the public.

The board also failed to keep appropriate meeting minutes, even on critical issues such as budgets and teacher hiring, the letter concluded.

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