Bill could keep the public out of public discussions

Critic: Measure would 'gut' Arizona open meeting rules

PHOENIX (AP) - A bipartisan bill in the state Senate would allow city councils, school boards and other leaders to talk in secret, discussions Arizona law now requires to be open to the public.

The measure says actions such as voting must still be done at meetings residents can attend, the Arizona Capitol Times reported Tuesday.

Republican Sen. Sylvia Allen of Snowflake, who introduced the legislation this week, said approval of the bill would improve government because elected officials could talk to each other privately before public meetings begin.

"There's better government if elected officials, the ones that are responsible and accountable, can have the freedom to be able to talk," said Allen, a former member of the Navajo County Board of Supervisors.

The bill would gut the state's open meeting law and reduce accountability and transparency, said Dan Barr, attorney for the First Amendment Coalition of Arizona.

"Some people are distrustful of government - except when they're in government," Barr said.

The bill would redefine public meetings to apply only to meetings at which public bodies take "legal action" instead of any meeting at which a quorum of members "discuss, propose or take legal action, including any deliberations by a quorum with respect to such action."

Allen said the public already is not part of every step of the process. She said the public wasn't involved in the drafting of her bill but will be when the measure is up for a vote.

"The point I'm trying to make is that they have this illusion that the public is hearing everything that is happening now. And the public is not," she said.