Posts tagged: open records
More than 45 people gathered at Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston last night for the first of four open-government workshops in North Idaho this week featuring Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden. The free sessions, sponsored by Idahoans for Openness in Government, or IDOG (full disclosure – I’m IDOG’s president), cover how to comply with Idaho’s two key open government laws, the Idaho Open Meeting Law and the Idaho Public Records Act, and are for local and state government officials and employees, reporters, editors and photographers from all media, and interested citizens.
Monday night’s session, co-sponsored by the Lewiston Tribune included interactive skits in which audience members took on roles, including the one pictured above, in which Doug Bauer of the Tribune portrayed a county prosecutor and Jaynie Bentz of the Port of Lewiston a county commissioner, helping illustrate the do’s and don’ts and generating laughs along the way. Lewiston Tribune Publisher Butch Alford, at left, guaranteed the session would be worth the price of admission, or he’d refund double the price.
Among the issues that came up during the session: Chief Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane noted that members of public boards shouldn’t be texting one another during meetings. “We’ve actually had cases of folks texting during a meeting and not having the discussion,” he said. “If you’re texting during the meeting, you’re robbing the public of the purpose of the Open Meeting Law.” Plus, he noted, those texts become public records and the public’s entitled to see them.
He also emphasized a line in the Open Meeting Law that says the “mere presence of legal counsel” does not justify a closed executive session; the law requires more than that. “The corollary to that is folks will send an email and copy it to their attorney, and claim it’s attorney-client privilege” to evade the public records law, Kane said. “It doesn’t work that way.”
When an audience member asked where notice should be posted if a board meeting is held at a board member’s home, the answer was: That’s not advised. A public meeting means anyone can come in, even to that home. But if that’s the place, notice must be posted somewhere prominent, like on the front door or the mailbox out front.
Additional IDOG workshops will be held tonight in Moscow; Wednesday night in Coeur d’Alene; and Thursday afternoon in Sandpoint. There are details here on locations, times and how to RSVP.
Here's a news item from the Associated Press: TWIN FALLS, Idaho (AP) — The Times-News has filed a lawsuit against the Gooding County School District after officials denied two public records request. The newspaper reports (http://bit.ly/1jF5z2x) that the lawsuit filed Monday involves requests for copies of separation agreements for Superintendent Heather Williams and Gooding High School Principal Chris Comstock. The school district in January denied the requests, contending the agreements are confidential and not available to the public. The lawsuit contends the school district failed to cite a legal reason for denying the requests. The Times-News publisher Travis Quast says the public has the right to the information because the district is funded by taxpayers. A hearing is set for Feb. 25 in Gooding County District Court.
The Times-News has its full story online here.
UPDATE: Today, the district decided to hand over the records after all.
A federal judge presiding over an antitrust lawsuit between two major Idaho health care providers has declared that trial testimony and documents can remain hidden from public view, providing attorneys make a compelling case for secrecy. U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill's Tuesday ruling came in response to a challenge from a coalition of Idaho news organizations to a broad protective order that sealed documents and closed testimony in the trial to protect trade secrets. The lawsuit focuses on allegations brought by the Idaho Attorney General, the Federal Trade Commission and Saint Alphonsus Health System against St. Luke's Health System; it emerged in the wake of St. Luke's bid to buy Nampa-based Saltzer Medical Group. Click below for a full report from the Associated Press and Idaho Statesman.
More than 230 people throughout North Idaho attended open government seminars last week sponsored by Idahoans for Openness in Government, from Sandpoint to Coeur d'Alene to Moscow to Lewiston; each was led by Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, and every attendee got the latest copies of his Idaho Open Meeting Law Manual and his Idaho Public Records Law Manual. Local and state government officials, reporters and editors, and interested citizens all were invited and turned out in force; you can read my full Sunday column here about the seminars. IDOG likely will be holding another session this spring in Boise.
At the IDOG open government seminar in Lewiston on Thursday night, A.L. “Butch” Alford, owner of the Lewiston Tribune and a charter board member of IDOG, told a crowd of 50, “Our mission is to foster open government, supervised by an informed and engaged citizenry. We believe we all benefit when the public, the media and government officials are fully aware of the public's rights to access government information and observe the conduct of the public's business.” Added Alford, “Tonight's mission is to enlighten the public, government officials from all levels, and the press.”
All were well-represented in the group that filled a lecture hall at Lewis-Clark State College, from city council members to board clerks to reporters and editors to a state lawmaker. In their evaluations of the evening session, one reporter wrote, “A terrific review - and enjoyable.” An elected official wrote, “My entity needs to review our open meetings.” Wrote a school board member, “We need to be more careful with email,” adding that her takeaway was, “Don't stall on public records requests and watch the emails.”
The session was an eye-opener for some in the audience, including one who's been working with a county task force and who realized he may have slipped up on open meeting law requirements. “I MAY be in a hell of a lot of trouble,” he wrote in his evaluation, adding three exclamation points; he conferred directly with Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden after the session on the steps he should take to make sure he's in compliance.
“Compliance is very critical,” wrote a local government employee in her evaluation. An elected official wrote, “You can work with the law.”
The session focused on the Idaho Open Meeting Law and Public Records Law, what they require and what they don't, and how everyone can make sure they comply with them. Wasden, who has led all 23 of the IDOG sessions held around the state since 2004, said, “In order for citizens to be involved, they have to know and understand what their government is doing.”
Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane told the group, “The No. 1 goal of the open meeting law is compliance. … If you look at the open meeting law as an entity and say, 'How can we get around it?' you've defeated the basic purpose - openness.”
Issued covered included recent changes in the law, including a “cure” process for agencies that allows them to correct an open meeting law violation, and new fee provisions for public records that require any labor charges to be clearly itemized and charged at the hourly pay rate of the lowest-paid employee qualified to handle them, and also make, in most cases, the first two hours of labor and 100 pages of copies free.
There's more information at the IDOG website, www.openidaho.org. IDOG stands for Idahoans for Openness in Government; Wasden's office partners with the group in the open-government education project, which also is supported by the Idaho Press Club, the Idaho Association of Cities, the Association of Idaho Counties, and receives grant funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation through the National Freedom of Information Coalition. The Lewiston session wrapped up a week-long run of well-attended open government seminars in North Idaho, starting in Sandpoint on Monday and also hitting Coeur d'Alene and Moscow. A Boise session likely will be held this spring.
Despite stiff competition - a hard-fought UI basketball game against the Washington State Cougars and the downtown holiday lights parade - nearly 40 people turned out last night for IDOG's open government seminar in the ornate, wood-paneled, hundred-year-old City Council chambers at Moscow City Hall. Those attending included the mayor, city and county attorneys, reporters and editors, academics and clerks, elected officials, interested citizens and agency staffers who deal with open records and meetings questions daily. The session was co-sponsored by the Moscow-Pullman Daily News.
Attorney General Lawrence Wasden told the group that some might think someone making a public records request is “just fishing.” But, he said, “The public records act is a license to fish.” Public records have to be disclosed to the public.
Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane told the group, “Any time you have a question with the open meeting law … resolve all doubts in favor of openness.”
In humorous skits exploring what the public records and open meeting laws require, Moscow City Councilman Walter Steed, shown here, portrayed a lucky reporter - seated next to three county commissioners at a cafe, who are busy illegally conducting the county's business as he overhears. (The commissioners were portrayed by Kenton Bird of the UI, Moscow City Attorney Randy Fife, and Moscow-Pullman Daily News staffer Kelcie Moseley). The scenario is actually based on a real case in Idaho.
The IDOG seminars move to Lewiston tonight.
A whopping 92 people attended the open government seminar in Coeur d'Alene last night, sponsored by IDOG, Idahoans for Openness in Government, and co-sponsored by the Spokesman-Review and the Coeur d'Alene Press. Press Managing Editor Mike Patrick told the crowd it was the first time he could remember the two competing newspapers co-sponsoring an event. Among those attending were numerous local government officials and staffers, reporters for a variety of news media, political activists, several former state legislators and lots of interested citizens.
Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden singled out an audience member, former state legislator Gary Ingram, for special recognition: Ingram is the author of much of the Idaho Open Meeting Law, including the key wording in the preamble:
“67-2340. Formation of public policy at open meetings. — The people of the state of Idaho in creating the instruments of government that serve them, do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies so created. Therefore, the legislature finds and declares that it is the policy of this state that the formation of public policy is public business and shall not be conducted in secret.”
Said Wasden, “We owe a great thanks to give to … (Rep.) Ingram for his work on this.”
Also recognized for traveling the farthest to attend: Bannock County Commissioner Howard Manwaring, who traveled from Pocatello to attend the session. It ran well into the evening because the audience had lots of questions, on everything from executive sessions to notice requirements to public records requests to minutes.
In interactive skits to demonstrate various nuances of the open meeting law and the Idaho public records law, actors included Kootenai County Prosecutor Barry McHugh, who portrayed an upset county commission chairman, and Kootenai County Commission Chairman Todd Tondee, who portrayed a county prosecutor. Coeur d'Alene Press reporter Maureen Nolan acted the part of “Trusty the city clerk,” opposite Coeur d'Alene Schools Superintendent Hazel Bauman, playing “Crusty, the reporter.”
Among the comments in the evening's evaluations: From a school district clerk: “I learned some new information.” From another public employee: “How to keep my entity legal and in compliance.” Another attendee wrote that he learned: “Documents are meant to be public; give public officials a chance to provide them.” Wrote another, “My organization needs to change agenda format and will probably put minutes/agenda online.”
Every attendee got copies of the latest version of the Attorney General's Open Meeting Law Manual and Public Records Law Manual; both also are online at his website here. Wrote a citizen who attended the Coeur d'Alene seminar, “The booklets will be a great help. There are ways to stay out of 'trouble.'” Wrote another, “Be cooperative, be helpful, when in doubt check the book.” Tonight, the open government seminar will be in Moscow, and tomorrow, Lewiston; there's more info here.
It's a balmy 28 degrees in Sandpoint this morning, where last night more than 50 people packed the public meeting room at the Sandpoint Library to learn about Idaho's open meetings and public records laws. “Open meetings and public records are very important to us as a citizenry,” Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden told the group.
It was the first of four North Idaho seminars this week sponsored by Idahoans for Openness in Government, IDOG, in partnership with the Attorney General's office and recommended by the Idaho Press Club, the Idaho Association of Counties and the Association of Idaho Cities. Last night's seminar was co-sponsored by the Bonner County Daily Bee; publisher David Keyes said the turnout shows people here really want to know about these issues.
Among the points that got a lot of attention last night: The Open Meeting Law says the public can attend the meeting, but doesn't say they can speak or participate; it just guarantees that citizens can observe. E-mails are public records. Agencies can't take 10 days to decide whether or not to release a public record in response to a request; that decision has to be made within three days - the law only allows taking up to 10 days to provide the records when it takes longer than the specified three days to locate or retrieve them. And a new law passed this year makes the first two hours of labor and the first 100 pages of copies free of charge in public records requests, excepting only those records for which there's a separate fee-setting statute, such as records in court files. “What this means is that 90 percent of your public records requests are going to be free,” Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane told the Sandpoint crowd.
Tonight, it's on to Coeur d'Alene, where there's been high interest, followed by Moscow on Wednesday and Lewiston on Thursday. Full disclosure here: I'm the president and a founding board member of IDOG. Last night was IDOG's 20th open government seminar since 2004, and the first in North Idaho since 2005; Attorney General Wasden has led every seminar. There's more info, including an online guide to these laws, at www.openidaho.org.
Everyone in Idaho should know what is covered - and what's not - by the state's public records and open meetings laws. That's the premise behind a series of educational seminars that Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden and Idahoans for Openness in Government, or IDOG, have been holding periodically around the state since 2004. Now, the seminars are coming to North Idaho, for the first time since 2005.
Full disclosure here: I'm the president of IDOG, and this long has been an issue close to my heart. We all benefit when everyone, including government officials, members of the news media, and the public, are fully aware of the public's rights to access government information and observe the conduct of the public's business.
IDOG seminars are lively and interactive, and attendees may find themselves playing a part in a skit designed to illustrate a point about one or the other of the laws. They're also free, and include refreshments. Here's the schedule for the North Idaho seminars:
* Monday Dec. 5, Sandpoint - 5:30-8 p.m., Sandpoint Library public meeting room, 1407 Cedar Street . Co-sponsored by the Bonner Daily Bee
* Tuesday Dec. 6, Coeur d'Alene - 6-8:30, Spokesman-Review Building 1st floor public meeting room, 608 Northwest Blvd. Co-sponsored by The Spokesman-Review and the Coeur d'Alene Press
* Wednesday Dec. 7, Moscow - 6-8:30 p.m., Moscow City Hall, City Council Chambers. Co-sponsored by the Moscow-Pullman Daily News
* Thursday Dec. 8, Lewiston - 6-8:30, Lewis-Clark State College, Sacajawea Hall Room 115. Co-sponsored by the Lewiston Tribune
These sessions are free and open to the public, but as space is limited, those who would like to attend are asked to RSVP by Dec. 2 to firstname.lastname@example.org or toll-free to (866) 336-2854. IDOG has sponsored 19 of these seminars around the state since 2004, from Preston to Moscow, from Pocatello to Coeur d'Alene. Each has been personally led by Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden. Attendees get copies of the latest version of Wasden's Idaho Open Meeting Law Manual and Idaho Public Records Law Manual.
IDOG is a broad-based, nonprofit coalition for open government. Like similar coalitions in more than 40 other states, IDOG's mission is to promote open government and freedom of information; its board includes people from inside and outside of government, the media, civic organizations and more. IDOG's seminars are funded in part by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, through the National Freedom of Information Coalition. There's more information at IDOG's website, www.openidaho.org.
I just got back to Boise from Moscow, where I spoke at a symposium at the University of Idaho entitled “Open Access: Citizens, Media & Government,” sponsored by the University of Idaho School of Journalism and Mass Media, with support from the McClure Center for Public Policy Research and the Society of Professional Journalists. There was a great turnout from both students and members of the community; more than 150 people attended the symposium. A new documentary film by UI students Hans Guske and Ilya Pinchuck, “Fighting Goliath: Megaloads & the Power of Protest,” made its debut; a panel including megaloads opponents Lin Laughy and Borg Hendrickson, Lewiston Tribune reporter William Spence and myself discussed “In the Sunshine: Holding Government Accountable;” and I delivered a lecture entitled “Open Government: Why it Matters” last night. Here's an excerpt from my talk:
The laws that ensure openness in government in our state and nation, including the Idaho Open Meeting Law, the Idaho Public Records Law and the federal Freedom of Information Act, allow people to hold their government accountable, prevent and uncover corruption, and actually participate in governing themselves, as our founding fathers intended. Because we can't have government of the people, by the people and for the people if the people don't know what the government is doing. … In 1820, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of this society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion.”
The state of Washington won today in the U.S. Supreme Court - and so did Idaho - as the high court upheld Washington’s Public Records Act and its requirement that signatures on a referendum petition be public, not secret. Idaho has similar laws, and joined 22 other states in filing “friend of the court” briefs backing Washington’s position. The group “Protect Marriage Washington” sued to prevent the release of the names of those who signed Referendum 71, the state’s unsuccessful measure that sought to overturn a same-sex domestic partnership law, arguing that the Washington public records law was unconstitutional because making the signers’ names public could subject them to harassment for exercising their right to free speech.
In an 8-1 opinion authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, the high court found that openness is vitally important to help states make sure signatures on referendum or initiative petitions are valid. “Public disclosure thus helps ensure that the only signatures counted are those that should be, and that the only referenda placed on the ballot are those that garner enough valid signatures,” Roberts wrote. “Public disclosure also promotes transparency and accountability in the electoral process to an extent other measures cannot.” Justice Clarence Thomas was the only dissenter; the case is Doe vs. Reed, and you can read the court’s opinion here, and more on this story here.
Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed said, “This is a big victory for the people of Washington state and the cause of government transparency and accountability here and in other states. I am delighted.”
When the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments last week in the case of Doe vs. Reed, challenging Washington state’s practice of considering signatures on petitions for a referendum or initiative to be public record, the justices’ questioning showed much concern about openness and transparency; you can see the transcript here (hat tip to Randy Stapilus’ Ridenbaugh Press). Here’s a comment from Justice Antonin Scalia to James Bopp Jr., who was arguing for keeping the names secret: “The fact is that running a democracy takes a certain amount of civic courage. And the First Amendment does not protect you from criticism or even nasty phone calls when you exercise your political rights to legislate, or to take part in the legislative process. You are asking us to enter into a whole new field where we have never gone before.”
This is a case in which Idaho has filed a friend-of-the-court brief backing the state of Washington, because Idaho’s laws are similar - and the state wants to keep its initiative and referendum petitions open.
Idaho has much at stake in Washington’s big U.S. Supreme Court case over whether referendum petition signatures should be public or not. “Our initiative and referendum statute is very similar to Washington’s and Oregon’s,” said Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, at whose request Idaho joined 22 other states in filing “friend of the court” briefs backing Washington’s position - that the signatures remain public.
“I can’t think of something any more public, that should be public, than somebody signing an initiative petition that is basically using the legislative power reserved to the people,” Ysursa said. “It’s part of an open and transparent process, just like (legislators) voting on a piece of legislation would be. That was our basic reason to join in, and the other states that have initiative and referendum seem to agree with us.” The 23 states, which also include Oregon, Utah, Arizona and Colorado and are being led by Ohio, are among a long list of parties who’ve filed supporting briefs on one side or the other in the case, from the American Conservative Union to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The high court will hear arguments in the case on Wednesday. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com, and read the states’ amicus brief here.
A nonprofit group on Tuesday launched a new “government transparency” Web site designed to give anyone who’s interested details about state and local government spending in Idaho, from a mayor’s salary to an agency’s computer purchases. “Transparency is a non-partisan issue - it’s not Republican, it’s not Democrat, it’s not something that typically divides people,” said Wayne Hoffman, executive director of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank that launched the site, “OurIdaho.com.” You can read more here at spokesman.com.