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6:37 AM Tue, July 17th

Congress School District takes motion to Judge

Congress residents filled Superior Court Judge David Mackey's courtroom Monday afternoon to hear oral arguments on a motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the Congress Elementary School District against four community members.

The purpose of the lawsuit is to prevent the four women from requesting public records, suing the district or complaining to outside agencies about the district.

Judge Mackey took the motion to deny under advisement and said he would "issue a ruling as soon as I am able to do so."

Goldwater Institute Litigation Director Clint Bolick argued that the women have the legal right to request public documents.

Congress School District Attorney Franklin Hoover argued that the public records requests submitted by the women had become so overwhelming and time consuming that they reached the point of harassment.

What caused the division between school officials and community members?

Congress teachers attending the hearing said the number of public records requests became so great that they "interfered with education. That is unacceptable."

Teacher Cindy Rodriquez said it started when the district began talking about school uniforms.

However, they said the requests soon reached a level where district staff members were overwhelmed by the "sheer volume and timelines of the public records request."

Defendant Jean Warren said the situation started "when the school district thinks it doesn't have to follow the rules."

Warren said the conflict started in January with a request for a school board agenda and backup information for consent agenda items.

"They said they were too busy. This is mostly about minutes and agendas, and for them to have to follow the rules," Warren said.

She alleged the consent agenda would include one voucher that would pay 10 to 20 vendors with no information about how much the district was paying each vendor.

Bolick based his argument to dismiss the lawsuit on the defendant's right to request public records, no matter the volume or number of those requests.

He noted that the school district's lawsuit "is the first of its kind anywhere in the United States."

Bolick told the judge that the school district's case "does not allege any request outside of the (Arizona) public records law. There is nothing in the law that states a limit to the volume of requests."

According to Bolick, the school board is "not frustrated by the number of requests, but by the public records law. They need to seek a solution in the Legislature."

Bolick summed up his argument by saying, "this lawsuit is a farce."

Hoover argued that frivolous and harassing public records requests are "not constitutionally protected and can be petitioned to the court."

Judge Mackey asked if Hoover was asking him to "rewrite Arizona's public records laws."

"Not at all," said Hoover. "The Arizona Supreme Court has ruled that unwieldy and harassing requests can be denied."

Hoover said the school district is seeking "injunctive relief to prevent the defendants from submitting public records requests without leave of the court. The plaintiff's position is simple. The defendants have been using public records requests to annoy employees of the school district."

Hoover asked, "At what point do the requests cross the line of statutory rights and interfere with the operation of the school? We would ask the court to deny the motion to dismiss and set a date for a preliminary hearing on the injunction."

According to the lawsuit, the defendants filed more than 100 public records requests, more than 10 complaints with the Arizona Department of Education, the county sheriff, the fire marshal, the state ombudsman and the attorney general.

Hoover said the school district is not asking the court to rule that the defendants could not "submit any further requests, but to prevent requests unless approved by the court, or court-appointed third party."