A Maricopa County judge's decision protecting a utility regulator's text messages from public scrutiny is a blow to the principles of open government.
It's not so much that Superior Court Judge Randall Warner kept Arizona Corporation Commission Bob Stump's texts away from prying eyes. It's the lack of explanation.
A little history: A Washington, D.C., outfit called Checks and Balances filed a public records request for Stump's text messages.It received a log of contacts and when messages were sent. It showed multiple texts to and from two Republican candidates for the commission, a non-profit group that was spending lots of money supporting their campaigns and an executive at Arizona Public Service, which is widely believed to have been the source of the money.
Surmising the timing of the messages might indicate illegal campaign coordination, Checks and Balances asked to see the texts.
Stump resisted, so the matter ended up in court. Warner assigned a former judge, David Cole, to review the text messages. He returned a one-page report indicating he had "determined that none of the text messages are subject to production," according to The Arizona Republic.
What does that mean? The state Open Records Law specifies limited cases in which documents created by elected officials on public property can be withheld from the public. That covers such matters as legal advice and real estate negotiations. I can't imagine either of those apply here.
Stump says there's nothing to see, there was no coordination and that Checks and Balances is on a witch hunt. That may be true, but it's immaterial. Stump was using a government-issued phone to communicate. That's no different than using email or the Postal Service. The texts should be public, unless there is some compelling reason they shouldn't be. If there is such a reason, it should be clearly explained.
Neither judge did that here, leaving a gaping hole in the ability of the public to assess the performance of an elected representative.