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Citizen group pans closed meetings

The Common Interest, a citizen group dedicated to reducing partisanship and special interest influence, has announced the results of its in-depth study of open legislative committee meetings, one of three issues it selected to examine over the past year. It found that after extensive briefing on all sides of the issue, 95 percent of its members opposed current House and Senate rules allowing committee meetings to be closed for any reason, and 68 percent were “strongly opposed.”

“We regard this as a fundamental violation of the basic principle that the people shouldn’t be excluded from their own business,” said the group’s founder and president, Keith Allred, a Harvard professor and professional mediator. A majority of the group, however, did favor allowing closed meetings under very limited circumstances, including to discuss pending litigation or security matters.

The Legislature currently is facing a lawsuit from the Idaho Press Club, charging that closed meetings of official legislative committees violate the state Constitution. The Idaho Supreme Court will take oral arguments in the case on Jan. 9. Allred said, “If the Press Club prevails before the Supreme Court, committees will likely be required to always be open to the public. However, if the Supreme Court finds that the Legislature has the constitutional authority to close committee meetings … The Common Interest would actively urge legislators to revisit current Senate and House rules.” He added, “Even if the Legislature has the constitutional authority to close committee meetings for any reason, our members – the common citizens of Idaho – do not feel that that is wise policy.”

He invited people to review the extensive briefing materials on the group’s website. “While our members came out decidedly against the current policy, we invite all concerned citizens to review our briefing materials, draw their own conclusions, and share those conclusions with their legislators,” Allred said.

The group also announced the four issues it will focus on for the upcoming legislative session: Property taxes, K-12 education funding, overcrowded prisons, and eminent domain. Members will research the issues, and if the group then takes a strong position one way or the other, will advocate for that position in the Legislature.

The Common Interest now has more than 700 members from all political persuasions and all corners of the state, Allred said. The donation-supported group, whose founding board members also include prominent former legislators from both parties like former Sen. Laird Noh, R-Kimberly, and former Sen. Marguerite McLaughlin, D-Orofino, is designed to give citizens who aren’t part of any special interest a chance to have a voice in the political system. All members must commit to voting in the primary and general elections.

Member Anne Hutchinson of Meridian, a retired Hewlett-Packard employee, said, “This gives us a chance to really see the issues and think them through. We get great information on both sides of the issue.”

Said Allred, “The only thing we have in common is that we’re Idahoans who care about the state.”


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Betsy Z. Russell covers Idaho news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Boise.

Named best state-based political blog in Idaho for 2013 by The Fix

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