The Idaho Supreme Court has ruled that a state agency can’t keep public records secret simply by handing them over to someone else and saying they’re no longer in the agency’s possession.
“These documents are clearly public records that are not expressly exempted by statute, regardless of whether ISDA (Idaho State Department of Agriculture) retains possession of them,” Justice Linda Copple Trout wrote in the court decision filed Monday. The 3-2 decision also noted that the court was “not persuaded by the ISDA’s attempts to circumvent these statutes.”
The case involved a lawsuit by the Idaho Conservation League against the state Department of Agriculture because the department refused to disclose nutrient management plans – plans showing how large quantities of manure and wastewater would be disposed of – for beef cattle feedlots. The department cited a law that requires its staff to give all copies of the required plans back to the feedlot operators after they’ve reviewed and approved them. “The department made a good-faith effort to comply with statute,” department spokesman Wayne Hoffman said Monday. “From time to time, courts hand down decisions that require agencies to re-evaluate how they do business.” Hoffman said the department still is reviewing the decision.
Justin Hayes, program director for the conservation league, said, “Average citizens just want to know that the waste that’s being generated is being disposed of properly, in a way that’s not going to harm their air quality or their water quality or result in blankets of flies smothering their grandchildren when they come over for a picnic.”
“When ISDA tries to hide these things from people, it makes people very angry at their government,” he said.
A district court had reached the same conclusion, but the state department appealed to the Idaho Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ordered the department to pay the league’s attorney fees for the appeal, concluding that the department’s appeal was “frivolously pursued” because it focused on who had possession of the records – not on whether the records were public or not.
The court wrote, “A state agency is expressly prohibited from preventing examination of a public record ‘by contracting with a non-governmental body to perform any of its duties or functions.’ … This statute indicates a clear policy by the Legislature that the public has a right to view and inspect records relating to the public’s business and this right cannot be denied by the expediency of having some other entity conduct the public’s business at some other location.”
The feedlots in question don’t include dairies, though mega-dairies and the waste they produce have been a hot issue in southern Idaho. Both Hayes and Hoffman said nutrient management plans for dairies have routinely been released to the public. Only feedlots for beef cattle were affected by the law about returning the plans to the operators.
Hayes hailed the court ruling. “A state agency and the Legislature tried to open up a huge hole in the Idaho Open Records Law by basically farming out documents,” he said. “That was a blatant attempt to make it hard for citizens to learn important information to protect their quality of life.”