School in Congress, Ariz.

An Arizona school has been rebuffed in its efforts to obtain a court ruling that it doesn’t have to provide access to public records to district residents and has been ordered to pay attorneys’ fees to those it sued.

The case came out of arguments in the Congress Elementary School District in Arizona, where officials objected to the number of public records requests – several dozen – submitted by various parents and community members.

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The district sued the parents to obtain a court ruling that officials would not have to provide access to records but was turned backed by the Arizona Court of Appeals. The court  not only said the request really didn’t make much sense but that the school must pay attorneys’ fees and costs to the defendants.

The Goldwater Institute, which represented the parents, said the appellate decision matched the conclusion reached earlier by a district court.

“Hopefully, district officials will stop trying to silence these women and instead will start following the law,” said Clint Bolick, the litigation director for the organization.

The defendants who were sued by the school had sought various records over the past 10 years, including school board meeting minutes. Their worries were bolstered over that time by multiple decisions by the state attorney general’s office and the Arizona public records ombudsman that said the district was violating its obligations, the Goldwater Institute report said.

“It would defy the purpose of our public records law to deny the public rightful access to information on how the district is conducting its functions on the tenuous ground that requesting such lawful access constituted a public nuisance,” wrote Judge Sheldon H. Weisberg in the appeals court decision.

“Perhaps the school district’s outrageous behavior finally will be over,” said Jean Warren, one of the defendants.

The others are Barbara Rejon, Renee Behl-Hoge and Cyndi Regis.

“This lawsuit is an assault on the rights of all Arizonans to open and transparent government,” said Bolick. “This definitive ruling serves notice that the courts will not tolerate Arizona governments that violate the rights of their citizens.”

School spokeswoman Toni Wayas told WND that she was disappointed the court was not willing to help the school.

“There is a shortage of dollars for education,” she said. “It is to me deplorable that those funds must be siphoned away from kids to take care of a person who has only in mind destroying things.”

She accused Jean Warren of attacking the school.

“Now we have to hire a person just to take care of this woman and her requesting something, requesting it a second time, requesting it a third time, turning in complaints,” she said.

“I was just disappointed there wasn’t some relief from that, so we could actually be about the business of educating students.”

She also confirmed there would be no further appeal.

Earlier, Liz Hill, the assistant state ombudsman for public access, told the Goldwater Institute she is unaware of any other case in which a government agency went to court to block public access to public records that by law must be available.

The complaint by the district listed a number of document and records requests made over the years and then alleged it “has suffered and will continue to suffer irreparable injury and damages unless the acts of defendants above complained of are enjoined.”

Specifically, school officials wanted:

  • A judgment that the district “is not obligated” to give defendants “access to or the right to examine or copy any additional public records which they, or any of them, has or have requested of plaintiff, or any of its agents, servants, officers or employees, or which the defendants, or any of them, may request of plaintiff in the future… without first obtaining leave of this court.”

  • A permanent injunction halting any of the defendants from making public records requests of the district.
  • An injunction permanently preventing the defendants from filing any claim, charge or lawsuit over the district’s actions or records.
  • And costs, expenses and legal fees.

The judges noted that the document requests involved records that ordinarily are open to the public, mostly agendas and minutes of board meetings and spending reports.

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