Local man just wants his public records
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Jeremy Thacker’s ongoing battle against the City of Phoenix began simply enough: When the disc golf enthusiast and his young family moved to Phoenix from Scottsdale and discovered there were no disc golf courses nearby, he saw an opportunity to create one.
But after more than two years and hundreds of hours of his life, the 44-year-old software salesman has given up on his dream of building a local disc golf course. He just wants his public records.
“I don't like being lied to or bullied,” he said. “And I’ve had a little too much of both from the city.”
Thacker set out to improve his neighborhood and instead got tangled up in a byzantine bureaucracy that’s denying him what any member of the public is entitled to, and something that we as journalists fight strenuously for: basic public records.
It started when he began researching what it would take to set up a partnership with the city to develop a course. The city told him that the cost of water would be prohibitively high. So he started researching the cost of water at the eight city-owned golf courses, and came to believe city golf courses are getting an obscenely low rate on their water.
That sent him down this rabbit hole that has consumed much of his disc golf time for these last two years. He’s given himself a crash course in public records law, water prices and the city’s accounting system. He’s researched the sources of funding for municipal parks and recreation, the department’s structure and the history of city golf courses.
Thacker just wants to know the amount of water golf courses use and how much it costs. But his life has become consumed in a battle for public records. And he’s pissed.
At this point, he just wants to win. He’s in the right, he knows it, and he’s not giving up. That’s more persistence than the average person usually shows to get a public record, and government agencies know that most people will simply give up if met with a brick wall of bureaucracy.
And because we’re all just one crazy disc golf course dream away from being in his shoes, we’re pissed on his behalf.
There’s no reason a city could keep secret the cost and amount of water it uses at city-owned golf courses, but the city refuses to give him detailed budget records.
Ensuring tax dollars are used wisely is perhaps the most essential reason public records laws exist. In fact, as far as we can tell, the city isn’t arguing the documents aren’t public records. Instead, it appears Phoenix is denying the request because it is overly broad, and the city can’t provide the records in the format that he has requested.
Thacker has already reached out to the Arizona Ombudsman Office, which is ostensibly tasked with helping the public in public records cases, though the office is largely toothless. He asked for help from Republican state Rep. John Kavanagh, who wrote a law that the city is relying on, in part, to deny Thacker’s requests, saying they’re overly burdensome for the city to fulfill. Kavanagh pointed him back to the Ombudsman Office.
At this point, Thacker has filed dozens of records requests — but many of his requests are just different attempts to get invoices for golf course water use.
But like most people, Thacker can’t spend thousands of dollars for an attorney to take his case to court. So he contacted Arizona State University’s First Amendment Clinic — a program of the law school that enables law students to practice in a limited capacity and help media with First Amendment cases — which agreed he had a case and offered to help, though they warned that doesn’t necessarily mean they are ready or willing to sue on his behalf.
The Arizona Ombudsman Office likewise agreed Thacker has a case.
In an email, a staff attorney who had been helping him get ahold of records said they had “not been very impressed with the city’s explanations thus far” and suggested the office might take the unusual step of sparking a “formal investigation and possibly a public report.”
But for Thacker, the fact that it has taken this much time and energy to get some basic budget records has really damaged his faith in local government, and proven to him that Phoenix city government suffers from a lack of accountability.
For journalists, the best recourse for a denied records request is often to write about it.
And if you can’t argue through the bureaucrats in charge of keeping the records, take it to their bosses: the politicians. In this case, that’s the Phoenix City Council and mayor.
So we offered to use what little influence this newsletter affords us as journalists to help Thacker in his quest for these records. We started by firing off a series of emails to city officials, including the city manager, city clerk, the parks and recreation director, as well as every member of the city council and Mayor Kate Gallego’s Office. We told them we were writing about this and requested an interview.
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Phoenix Communications Director Dan Wilson sent around an internal email saying his department would handle it, then shot back a two-paragraph statement saying the city has provided Thacker a host of records and conducted virtual meetings to answer his questions, and that most of his requests were fulfilled within 10 days.
“We understand Mr. Thacker remains unsatisfied that some information he seeks does not exist with the city or is not available in the format he would like. However, Mr. Thacker's public records requests have been fulfilled in accordance with the Arizona Public Records Law,” he wrote.
(Thacker says it’s impossible the city doesn’t have receipts for the amount of water each golf course uses and the price Phoenix Golf pays for it, and that he's willing to accept the data in any format the city can deliver it.)
But you don’t get anywhere in journalism without patience and persistence. And we’re in this for the long haul. These aren’t just Thacker’s records. They’re our records. They’re your records. And we’re gonna get them from our city government, one way or another.
We’ll provide ongoing updates about Thacker’s quest and assist by applying pressure on politicians and bureaucrats and investigating some of his suspicions about why the city is so hesitant to turn over the records. Hell, maybe we’ll all learn a little about golf courses.
We’d love it if you join us.
If you’re a lawyer who can spare a little time to help, hit us up! If you’re a city employee who can give us the records, reach out! (But do so smartly — we’re on Signal at 602-434-0434.) If you just happen to know a lot about the topic of municipal golf courses, we’d love to hear from you.
And if you’re just an average citizen, a good place to start would be to share this email with the members of the Phoenix City Council.
Here are their emails. You can click the button below, paste these in, and let them know that we’re watching.