Why Phoenix is wrong to withhold informationPhoenix officials' have decided to withhold some personal information from public records. It's a decision, they say, that was prompted by a law passed in 2006 to protect people from identity theft.
Dates of birth and addresses are on the list of bits of information to redact in the name of protecting the public. To be sure, identity theft is a major problem, especially in Arizona. But this does more harm than good.
First, identity theft is defined as "knowingly taking, purchasing, manufacturing, recording, possessing or using" a person's identifying information for any unlawful purpose." (A.R.S. 13-2008)
Inquiries from you or your neighbor for public information should not automatically be considered unlawful. But that is obviously the city's assumption.
Second, the law (A.R.S. 41-4172) was never intended to hamper public access to information. That comes from former Representative Bob Robson, the sponsor of the law.
Instead, it mandates that government agencies establish procedures to make sure that the personal identifying information they collect is secure and "cannot be accessed, viewed or acquired unless authorized by law." (Italics mine)
Robson made it point to include this line: "Nothing in this article shall be construed to restrict, diminish or otherwise affect the provisions of Title 39." (Public Records, Printing and Notices)
I talked to Robson today and he wonders how city officials "could they take something that is so simple and make it so complicated?"
Still not clear enough?
Check out a Sept. 26, 2008 memo from Kenneth Behringer, General Counsel at Arizona Legislative Council, who discussed in depth the effect of this identity theft law. Click on the link ... the full memo is worth a read.
Some snippets: (I've underlined the good part for you.)
Question: Did this legislation modify what is considered a public record in regard to personal identifying information?
Answer: No, the legislation did not modify what is considered a public record. It has been suggested that by defining personal identifying information to include some information that has been considered public, such as names, that the legislature intended to modify what is considered to be public information. This interpretation focuses on the definition without considering all the language of the article.
Under the statute, government agencies must develop procedures to protect the identifying information that it receives and stores, including names. But the statute does not mandate that the agencies withhold this information, if its release is allowed by law.
More particularly, if a city or town develops procedures that prevent public access to public records, including identifying information that is currently considered public, the procedures are contrary to statute.
It's a shame that there are people who allow city officials to chip away at their right to access the public information without question. The ramifications go beyond Phoenix as officials around the Valley are watching and following suit. Or considering it.
Given the legal memo, the law's clear intention and the language of the law itself, it is inexplicable that Phoenix could interpret that law so poorly.
Remember: Government officials are not the owners of the information they collect with your tax dollars and maintain to conduct city business. They are simply the caretakers. (A.R.S. 39-121)