Arizona panel seeking private briefings on border

AP News
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Posted: Sep 01, 2011 4:48 PM
Arizona panel seeking private briefings on border

An Arizona legislative advisory committee assigned to make recommendations on improving security along the U.S.-Mexico border wants to hold private meetings with federal officials away from the Capitol.

The move raises questions about whether the move would comply with the state's open meeting law.

Officials with Department of Homeland Security agencies responsible for border security and immigration have declined invitations to brief the panel in public but indicated they're willing to brief members behind closed doors.

Rep. Russ Jones, a Yuma Republican who is the panel's co-chairman, said federal officials initially indicated they felt it was inappropriate to appear before a state legislative committee.

Their concern now apparently centers on the sensitivity of information that would be presented on border enforcement intelligence and operations, Jones said.

"We want them to feel free to be as candid as possible about the unique threats and issues that they may have, without fear of divulging something that might be of use ... to the bad guys," Jones said during an interview Wednesday.

Department of Homeland Security officials did not immediately respond Thursday to a request for comment.

Jones said his panel needs the information so they can be fully informed before it prepares a report due at the end of the year.

However, he acknowledged that the open meetings law's requirements may not line up with his desire to have the entire committee meet privately with federal officials at the same time.

The open meeting law is intended to provide transparency for the public. It generally requires the Legislature and other public bodies _ and their advisory committees _ to meet in public.

House Rules Attorney Tim Fleming said he wasn't privy to the committee's plans but said sensitive security matters aren't among the meeting law's exceptions that permit closed-door sessions.

Security-related questions about the meeting law's requirements have come up when other legislative committees have toured prisons and the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, Fleming said.

"There are questions about it," Fleming said when asked about the committee's intentions. "Certainly under the statute, there are unanswered questions about how you do it."

Jones said one way to accomplish the goal of fully briefing committee members while staying in technical compliance with the law would be to have several private sessions involving small numbers of panel members but not a quorum at one time.

Arizona legislative leaders regularly use that approach to allow closed-door meetings of groups of lawmakers when formulating plans on sensitive matters such as budget cuts.

Using the small-group approach for the border meetings "might meet the letter of the law, not necessarily the intent of the law," Jones said.

"I'm hoping I don't have to break the group up so that we don't have quorums because that just adds ... to the expense and time to accomplish it," he said.

Some federal and state officials have been at odds over border- and immigration-related matters, including the state's SB1070 immigration enforcement law and whether the federal government has done enough to stop smuggling and illegal crossings.

Jones said the intended purpose of inviting federal officials "wasn't to bring them up here to beat up on them."

"The purpose was to have us better informed," he said. "If there's some myths that need to be debunked, if there are areas where we may be misinformed, then give them the opportunity to provide the evidence the testify to that effort ... but all of them declined."