Legal Reference

Toothless Arizona ombudsman to help get public records

Arizona’s public records laws are mostly there to make you think that Arizona public records are open to the public. Arizona’s public records laws are certainly NOT there to force government rulers to provide the public with copies of the alleged public records they keep.

First there are no criminal or civil penalties when government rulers refuse out right to provide the public with records that are supposed to be public. That’s right there are absolutely no criminal or civil penalties. What a toothless law!

On top of that if you have to sue to get copies of the public records the law doesn’t even let you collect damages. The law does say you MIGHT, that is MIGHT be able to get your attorneys’ fees if you sue! Ain’t that great, if the government refuses to give you copies of public records and you have to sue them you MIGHT be able to collect the fees you paid to your attorney.

Because of the numerous cases where government rulers refused to provide public records to the public the rulers at the house and senate passed a special law that pretends the government will help the public when government rulers refuse to give out public records. This is the toothless Arizona’s Ombudsman Citizen’s Aid agency!

Of course the Arizona’s Ombudsman is only there to make you think you have access to public records. They have absolutely no authorities to force a government agency to give you the public records.

And when an agency refuses to give you public records what can the Arizona’s Ombudsman do to punish the agency? Well get the Arizona’s Ombudsman can write a letter to the governor and Legislature saying the Arizona’s Ombudsman thinks the agency has failed to provide you with public records. Wow! I bet that will put fear into the eyes of a government nanny who doesn’t want to hand out their public records.

So remember the Arizona public record laws, and the Arizona’s Ombudsman agency are there to only make you think you have access to public records.

Email them at


Arizona's ombudsman settles public-agency disputes
The Arizona Republic
Mar. 17, 2008 12:00 AM

1. What exactly does an ombudsman do?

We are a small office of the legislative branch of state government, and our job is to help people who have a problem with a state government agency. When people contact us we listen to their side of the story and try to help them in an appropriate way. We might coach them on how to best resolve their problem on their own, or we could contact a state agency on their behalf to clear up a misunderstanding or correct a simple mistake. We also have the authority to conduct a formal investigation of a state agency. We don't have any authority to compel an agency to do anything, but most agencies are very willing to work with us to correct a mistake.

2. What happens when a complaint against a state agency can't be resolved?

Normally we are able to resolve justified complaints. If we think a complaint is justified and the agency doesn't resolve it, our last step is to write a report that goes to the governor and Legislature. I know that merely writing a report sounds kind of weak, but most state agencies do not want to be singled out by our office for criticism. Since we work for the Legislature and the Legislature appropriates the budgets of state agencies, we actually carry a fairly big stick. If we think a complaint is not justified, we go back to the complainant and explain why we think the agency acted appropriately.

3. Which is the most difficult state agency to deal with and why? My guess is Division of Motor Vehicles.

Actually, MVD is one of the easiest agencies to work with. We go right to the director's office and the people we work with are responsive and more than willing to correct a legitimate mistake. We have a fairly good relationship with other state agencies, too, because we have been around for almost 12 years and most of them have worked with us before. Most state agencies know that we are going to be tough, but also fair. The agencies we are having the most difficulty working with right now are some of the smaller towns and school boards. I think that is because they have never heard of us and don't know what to expect.

4. What's the most misunderstood part about your job, duty or authority?

The first problem is that most folks don't know what an ombudsman is and we spend a lot of time explaining what we do and how we approach our role. The second misunderstanding is that many people think we are going to be their advocate and will represent them in a hearing, or be their lawyer. Our role is to be impartial; we are kind of like a judge. We are not on the side of every complainant. Nor are we on the side of the government agency. Instead, we are neutral and independent. However, once we find that a government agency made a mistake, we do advocate for a fair and appropriate resolution the problem.

5. Are people more difficult to deal with because they are emotional or is bureaucracy more difficult because it's not?

Both sides can be frustrating. It's normal for someone to be angry and frustrated when they first get to us because they have probably been bounced around from bureaucrat to bureaucrat before they even get here. . . . Once they realize that we are going to give them a fair shake, they generally calm down. Dealing with public officials is sometimes challenging, too. One of the good things about our office is that we have been around for a while and understand how the bureaucracy works. It's not fair when a regular person goes up against a bureaucrat because the bureaucrat knows the rules of the game and can use them to his advantage. On the other hand, the playing field is more level when we go up against a bureaucrat because we understand the rules as well as anyone.

6. How open, would you say, is Arizona government in terms of public records and open meetings?

On the whole, I think we are not so bad. . . . I think we are all taught in school that government belongs to the people and should be open. We all understand the general principle. Problems arise when people don't know how the principle is applied in a specific situation or when a public official cheats and doesn't do what they know they should. Naturally, there is always room for improvement. . . . Nowadays, all that information, and much more, is available online. If you haven't done so already, I would encourage everyone to go to the state's Web site at and look around at all the information your state government makes available. I think you might be surprised.

Patrick Shannahan is Arizona's Ombudsman-Citizens' Aide, appointed in July 1996 to settle disputes between the public and state agencies.

Shannahan oversees a staff of seven, including one person who deals exclusively with complaints about Child Protective Services and an attorney who handles open government complaints.

More information: