AZTEC PRESS SPECIAL REPORT: What’s your deadline?

By JAMIE VERWYS

On the greener side of Pima Community College’s probationary status with the Higher Learning Commission, the need to inform is more important than ever. With the commitment to change made by the administration at Pima, there is simply more critical news to be relayed.

The Aztec Press has faced issues when dealing with Pima employees including behaviors explicitly prohibited by Freedom of Information Act and Arizona’s Public Record laws. Lack or denial of responses to information, internal investigations and police report requests, changes in department staff and failures to facilitate interviews raise the most important questions.

If transparency was an approved remedy in resolving the college’s discrepancies and reputation, why  is anyone facing red tape?

This semester began with difficulties in receiving prompt responses from college administrators.

On Jan. 20, there was a sudden change in the procedure to speak with Chancellor Lee Lambert. Last semester, reporters found that email was a responsive, open and efficient channel.

When the chancellor was asked to speak about Gov. Ducey’s budget plan, he responded by email, “Yes, of course.”

The next email response was from Gabriela Echávarri, administrative assistant to the chancellor, asking all interview requests for the chancellor be directed to Paul Schwalbach.

The change came after receiving written consent from Lambert. After emailing Schwalbach, the marketing and public relations manager of PCC, he did arrange a phone interview for Aztec Press with the chancellor two days later.

While this request was fulfilled, subsequent ones were not even met acknowledged.

On Feb. 11, an email was sent to Schwalbach asking to quote Lambert about the hiring of new Registrar Yolanda Espinoza. Again, he asked for a deadline, which was five days later, Feb. 16. After no response, an update was requested on Feb. 17. No response or interview for a profile piece about a Pima administrator was ever received.

Another reporter experienced no response to a formal request regarding veterans at Pima. His email to Schwalbach on Feb. 20 asked that documentation of the number of veterans receiving GI Bills at Pima be provided.

Though a deadline was provided, communication never came. The reporter did receive an immediate response from the veterans’ director, Daniel Kester.

When Schwalbach was called to answer questions about transparency in public institutions on March 20, he directed the Aztec Press to PCC’s general legal counsel Jeff Silvyn.

Silvyn is responsible for “providing and managing legal services to meet the needs of the college.”

He said the best protocol for information and interview requests is to contact Jodi Horton with a topic.

Horton was hired Feb. 13 as a “temporary public relations consultant.” One of her duties is to provide outreach to local media outlets.

Her phone number is not listed in Pima’s employee directory, no contact information was released in a Feb. 13 press release and the Aztec Press had only received one phone call from her prior to this article.

When called for comment on March 23, Horton’s voicemail box had not been activated yet due to technical issues. After an email was sent, she called the Aztec Press promptly.

“I respond to media inquiries and make connections with interviewees, that’s important,” she said. “I counsel the chancellor in regard to public relations opportunities that might come his way.”

Horton is at Pima no more than 30 hours a month. When she heard about our issues in communication, she was not aware of the specific events. She provided reasons why requests might not have gotten responses.

“The chancellor has made it a policy to be really responsive to the press. He’s very well intentioned about this but very honestly as a lifelong public relations official, if he had asked me it would be my counsel not to be quite so available because it is very difficult in the amount of time he has to prioritize requests and answer every one as it comes in.”

As far as emails that were unanswered, she was not aware of them.

“I don’t know, but it is entirely possible that one of us chased the people down that you wanted to talk to and were not successful ourselves at making that connection in a timely manner. That’s not to say that one of us shouldn’t have gotten back to you, we should have, but I don’t know what specifically happened with this.”

After the phone interview with Horton, she very quickly responded to a request to interview the chancellor. Within an hour of the request, she procured an interview with him for the next day.

Lambert has made transparency one of Pima’s strongest platforms and repeatedly speaks about it in emails and meetings.

“For those of us who work in the public sector, transparency is always an element of what we do,” Lambert said in a phone interview.

When informed of communication issues and unfulfilled records requests, Lambert did not know what the reason was, but agreed that Aztec Press should receive responses.

“I want to make sure we are being supportative of your learning experience and if you are reaching out to get certain information, as long as there is no reason we can’t, we should provide it,” he said.

Silvyn explained the protocol in place for sourcing requests to the right places.

“It provides kind of a central point of contact for information requests to enter the college system,” he said. “It allows us to hopefully do a better job of tracking requests and how and when they are being fulfilled.”

University of Arizona School of Journalism Director David Cuillier doesn’t approve of what he heard from Aztec Press about Pima’s interview process.

“That’s the kind of tactics they are going to use to control information,” Cuillier said.

“These tactics are being applied all around the country in the federal level down to local. Stand your ground and do your reporting and don’t play by their rules,” he said.

“Citizens and the press should not have to play by these restrictive rules to find out what the government is doing.”

Under laws such as the Sunshine Act and the Freedom of Information Act, public institutions have legal obligations. Withholding police reports, failing to respond to requests or holding undisclosed meetings is illegal.

The Arizona Public Records Law requires that “all public records be open to inspection by any person at all times during office hours.”

First Amendment Coalition attorney Dan Barr calls the laws fundamental protections that democracy was designed to give.

“For the people to effectively govern themselves, they need as much information about the operation so they can evaluate what government officials are doing and they can participate to the full extent possible in their government,” he said.

Barr said Pima was trying to wait out the student journalists.

“It’s what a lot of governmental bodies do,” he said. “They string you along with the hope that you go away. They have learned the lesson that the delay of information can be the denial of information.”

Barr advised that legal repercussions could be taken against a public institution that failed to supply public records in a timely manner.

The call for sunshine at PCC reached a high point in 2011 when the college gained nationwide attention for former student Jared Loughner.

Suspended from PCC in 2010 for erratic behavior, Laughner was responsible for a mass shooting on Jan. 8 that killed six and wounded 14 others, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

Downtown Campus employee Michael Lopez thinks Pima’s handling of the Loughner situation is where problems really began.

“Pima didn’t want to give out any information,” he said. “Then people started digging into more stuff and stuff that didn’t even have to do with Loughner. I’m pretty sure it was like, ‘is this place that dysfunctional?’”

Media outlets from across the country looked to Pima for answers and many were met with “stonewalling.”  Former Aztec Press news editor Debbie Hadley wrote an editorial in March 2011, expressing a need for Pima to shed a little light.

“PCC provides documents as mandated by law, but keeps a tight noose around release of information,” she wrote. “PCC’s attempts to control information are misguided and counterproductive.”

Cuillier said PCC’s transparency has been hazy for a long time.

“Pima has had a long tradition of secrecy in this community,” he said. “The community college has been controlling over information with student media and withholding information from commercial media.”

Patterns of PCC to refuse interviews and public records have been felt by several local newspapers, including the Green Valley News.

Dan Shearer, editor of the Green Valley News, said his newspaper’s biggest issue with Pima is a lack of clarity on the future of the small PCC learning center in the area.

He believes the college could work in harmony with media.

“Pima has a terrific story to tell,” he said. “Media can help get that story out. Pima can build trust with the media by being as responsive during the tough requests as they are with the pleasant.”

PCC regularly supplies press releases and event information to the Aztec Press, but Shearer has ideas for improvement to the college’s technique.

“Pima needs to dump its current method of sending out press releases and hoping they make it to local media, and instead adopt an aggressive online campaign that frames a simple message for the community: ‘We help people get to where they want to be.’”

“Pima has had a problem over the past few years of reacting to the story of the day rather than getting in front of it, framing it and rolling it out,” he added.

There are reasons the freedom of information is protected and public institutions are expected to commit to the highest level of honesty available.

Cuillier says transparency is a tool against corruption and a major component of democracy. “Without it we would just end up being a police state or a dictatorship,” he said.

Horton, the temporary public relation employee, believes the process currently in place will improve once a permanent person is hired.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have the staff or personnel in the advancement office to run a news bureau in the same way that the U of A can,” she said.

“This is an unusual situation, but soon you should have an executive director of public relations in place and things should go more smoothly.”

For Lopez, transparency at Pima is all related to the challenges created by HLC. He said administrators must remember to place focus back on where it belongs, the students.

“One thing that the chancellor said that I agree with and I will hold him to was, ‘if it’s good for the students, it’s good for Pima.’ Let’s do what’s right for the students,” he said.

Silvyn said public institutions are legally bound to transparency on certain levels.

“Some degree of transparency is required or at least implied by some applicable laws and since Pima is a public institution there’s a value in the public being able to have access to information about what’s going on at the college and important decisions that are made here,” he said.

Lambert has asked the Aztec Press to email him all failed correspondence so that he can talk to the individuals responsible for communication.

“I will make sure you get a response,” he said.

The majority of incidents included in that email are requested PCC police reports.When Pima does not supply requested reports, free of redactions, it is illegal.

As far as what will happen next, one editor’s advice echoes the Aztec Press’s dedication.

“Do not back down, know the law and quote it, bang on the door till it’s falling off its hinges,” Shearer said.

Part 2 of this series will publish in Issue 6 on April 9. It will cover police records and provide an update on issues the student newspaper has experienced with transparency.

Editor’s Note: Jodi Horton is at Pima no more then 30 hours a month. This was incorrectly stated as Horton is at Pima no more then 30 hours a week. The correction has been made. Horton stated in an email she is at Pima 33 hours a month. 

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