There is no question that laws written decades ago have a hard time keeping up with technology. However, it doesn’t matter when some laws were written and what new technology comes along; some situations are no-brainers.
If you’re an elected official and you’re doing work on behalf of the public, then whatever records come from that work should be available for the all to review. That includes any records of public business conducted using an official’s personal cell phone.
Public records requests are one of the best ways to deter public officials from the temptation of corruption. The news media use these requests all the time in news gathering. Public interest and lobbying groups also use public records requests. When public officials know that every email they send, every text message they receive, and every the number of every phone that calls their office is documented and available to the public upon request, then officials are more likely to be careful to keep everything above board and honest.
If, however, public officials are allowed to keep some communication private and the public cannot access those records, temptation will soon follow.
Rep. Bob Thorpe, R-Flagstaff, is proposing a law that would remove from public scrutiny any records of public business that are stored on public officials’ personal cell phones, computers, or social media accounts.
That’s a terrible idea.
Thorpe is reacting to a ruling by the state Court of Appeal in December that determined public officials cannot lawfully hide public business by using their own cell phones, emails or social messages.
We recognize that many public officials would feel uncomfortable handing over their personal cell phone to the public. Their texts to their family, and communications with their personal physician should be kept private.
But any of their communication that involves public business needs to remain a public record. Courts have consistently ruled that way, and it shouldn’t take a court to come to that conclusion; it’s common sense.
There is an answer. Public officials and employees should have two cell phones, one for doing the public’s work and the other for personal use. That way, texts telling your daughter to be home by 10 p.m. would remain private.
If public officials consider carrying two cell phones to be too inconvenient, then they can expect that their private communications will likely be viewed by someone else. A judge, for example, could go through the communications to decide which the public has a right to know about and which should remain private.
It will be the lawmakers’ choice which approach they are willing to accept.
Why did Thorpe propose a law that, as he knows, is likely unconstitutional, one that almost invites someone to abuse it, breaking the public trust?
His proposal should never see the light of day. Our lawmakers should do everything in their power to keep their work open and available for the public to scrutinize, thereby preserving public trust in Arizona’s elected officials.