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Posts tagged: public records

Ombudsman: Idaho’s public records process needs strengthening, and a venue short of court for appeals

Four months into her new job, Idaho’s public records ombudsman, Cally Younger, says more work needs to be done to clarify and strengthen Idaho's public records process. She's surveying state agencies and meeting with stakeholders in advance of the 2015 Legislature, and recommending potential changes to her boss, Gov. Butch Otter, reports Idaho Statesman reporter Cynthia Sewell.

Under Idaho’s current public records law, a citizen or journalist who is denied access to a public record has to sue in court to challenge the denial. Younger told the Statesman that’s a problem and one she’s working to fix with new legislation to be proposed next year. “I think the biggest shortcoming is that litigation is the only remedy for a requester, which in many cases can be cost-prohibitive to pursuing withheld records,” Younger said. “That is one of the biggest issues that I am going to look into. I think it is important.” She added, “We actually had our first meeting last month to talk about our goals for this session. I am hopeful that we can add that review process and also clear up some ambiguities in the law.”

Younger also said she's working to improve response to public records requests by state agencies. Sewell’s full article and a Q-and-A with Younger ran Sunday; they’re online here.

Guv’s office destroyed Board of Ed applications due to ‘sensitive personal information’

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter’s office destroyed 22 of the 37 applications it received for two recent State Board of Education openings, reports Kevin Richert of Idaho Education News, because it said they contained “sensitive personal information.” Richert filed a public records request under the Idaho Public Records Act for the applications, but only got 15 of them.

Richert noted that in the applications the governor’s office did release, personal information such as driver’s license numbers was blacked out; you can read his full report here.

BSU refusing to disclose details of stadium naming rights deal, citing ‘trade secrets’

Boise State University is refusing to disclose details of the multimillion-dollar naming rights deal in which Bronco Stadium is being renamed Albertsons Stadium – even to the State Board of Education, the Idaho Statesman reports. The $12.5 million, 15-year deal was the subject of a public records request from the Statesman, but when the university provided documents about the deal, it blacked out all dollar figures, claiming those details are “trade secrets.” The state board meets tomorrow in Idaho Falls, and the deal is on its agenda; Statesman sports writer Chadd Cripe reports that the state board staff, in its memo to the board, wrote, “The net revenue to be paid to BSU under this Agreement (in concert with the Learfield agreement) remains uncertain to staff. This issue along with additional questions about the Agreement remain to be addressed at the Board meeting. Staff reserves judgment pending resolution of these matters.” Cripe’s full report is online here.

A follow-up: Today Cripe, at @IDS_BroncoBeat, sent out this tweet: “Boise State President Bob Kustra left me a voice mail this morning. He was upset stadium docs were redacted, said info will be released”

A public records request about a public records order…

Gov. Butch Otter seemed a bit surprised this morning that he’d already received a public records request for documents related to his move to create a public records ombudsman position in his office. “Did you hear about that?” he asked reporters before his press conference, referring to the request from AP reporter Rebecca Boone. “She asked for a public records on the executive order I’m signing about public records today!” When a reporter – OK, it was me – responded, “What a great idea!” a laughing Otter said, “You guys – get outta here.”

Boone’s request seeks “all documents, correspondence, notes, phone messages, emails, text messages and other records regarding the creation of a public records ombudsman position by the Governor’s office,” along with policy or procedure documents on how to respond to public records requests both before and after the creation of the office, and all drafts and previous versions of the executive order creating the ombudsman position.

That final item may be of special note, considering that Otter spokesman Jon Hanian told the Idaho Statesman, in an article printed today, that the new ombudsman would take requests from those who've had a public records request denied, in whole or in part, within 90 days of the denial, and issue an opinion within 10 business days. “We think it will add another check and balance in the process of transparency,” Hanian told Statesman reporter Cynthia Sewell. But the order Otter signed today doesn’t include that process.

The governor said that’s his vision for what his new ombudsman would do, but first the attorney, Cally Younger, will gather information about how agencies handle requests now and help formulate proposals for improvements, some of which might require legislation. Hanian said today that the 90-day time frame “was in the earlier working draft; it was not in the executive order he signed today.” He said Otter left that out of today’s order because “he wants all of the particulars that deal with the process … as well as the time frame … to be part of the dialogue that he spoke about this morning. So it may end up being 90 days, it may be shorter than that or longer than that. … This will get the ball rolling on it and we can start fine-tuning it.”

Otter signs executive order to create public records ombudsman

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter today signed an executive order creating an Idaho public records ombudsman’s office under his office, charged with collecting information and compiling concerns and complaints about state agencies’ compliance with Idaho laws requiring disclosure of public records, and working with the governor, stakeholders and the public to come up with improvements to Idaho’s system.

“What we’re announcing today is the beginning of a process for the establishment of a consistent program for either denying or accepting public records requests,” Otter said. “Before now, the only remedy for somebody being denied a public records request was going to court.”

Otter’s executive order doesn’t change that – that’s still the law. But the governor said his new ombudsman’s office, which he can create on his own by executive order, will lay the groundwork for making a case to the Legislature next year – with all stakeholders involved – on how to make the process better.

“In the next six or seven months, we’re going to amass this information,” Otter said. “I’m going to have to go to the Legislature and say we’ve got stuff in the statute that we can take out, or we’ve got additional stuff that we should put into the statute.”

Otter named Cally Younger, associate counsel in his office, as the new public records ombudsman. “What I envision is Cally saying to an agency, ‘You are without statutory or legal grounds to deny this.’ That’s what I envision,” he said.

Establishing such an office under the Idaho Attorney General’s office, which already advises state agencies on public records law issues, has been discussed for years, but hasn’t happened due to lack of funding. Otter said he’s not seeking any additional funding at this point. “Cally’s already on staff and she’s a very industrious employee, works very hard,” he said.

Mark Warbis, Otter’s communications director, said the attorney general’s office doesn’t have the power to create such an office by executive order, and the governor’s office does. Otter thanked the Newspaper Association of Idaho, an association of Idaho newspaper publishers, and the group’s lobbyist, Jeremy Pisca, for spurring the move. “I want to build a process that gives some relief ahead of going to court,” Otter said. “That’s what this is all about.”

BSU claims records of professor’s work on Amanda Knox case are trade secrets

Andrea Vogt, a former Idaho reporter now based in Italy, reports on a public records battle with Boise State University over the work of Professor Greg Hampikian, the head of the Idaho Innocence Project and a DNA expert who has played a key role in the Amanda Knox case. Vogt has been looking into public resources, both state and federal, that have gone into Knox’s defense in the murder case in Italy, but ran into a surprising roadblock: Boise State denied her requests under the Idaho Public Records Law for Hampikian’s correspondence about the case, claiming they’re trade secrets.

Writes Vogt, a former Spokesman-Review reporter, “It raises the following questions: Do U.S. citizens have the right to know if public university resources, labs and funds were used (and how) to aid the defense of a private citizen accused abroad of murder, justly or unjustly?  What are the parameters for this kind of advocacy?  When should public universities be allowed to come to the aid of those imprisoned at home or abroad, who decides who gets help and who doesn’t, and how transparent should those university efforts be?”

You can read her full report here at her website, “The Freelance Desk.” Her work in three languages has been published by The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Week, BBC, Discovery Channel and A & E's Crime and Investigation Network, among others. For more on the Idaho Innocence Project and its funding, click here.

Idaho agrees to keep court records related to prison medical care secret

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The Idaho Department of Correction and attorneys representing inmates at the Idaho State Correctional Institution have quietly reached an agreement that could permanently hide from public view records connected to the medical care provided at the prison. The protective order was approved by a federal judge Friday in a 32-year-old lawsuit over substandard care and other problems at ISCI. The order allows the state to designate any record confidential if officials think the designation is needed to protect trade secrets, medical privacy, the security of the prison or if the release would be “unduly detrimental” to the interests of third parties. IDOC attorney Mark Kubinski says the intent is to protect records that would already be protected under Idaho's public records law, not to shield the documents from public view.

Click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.

Blackfoot school board admits secret payouts to former supt, open meeting law violations

The Idaho Falls Post Register reports that the school board in Blackfoot agreed in April to a $210,000 contract buyout with the district's former superintendent, then took steps to keep the payments secret, according to documents the district released under a court order Monday. The documents were made public pursuant to an open records lawsuit filed by former teacher Joyce Bingham and the Post Register newspaper. To ensure no one found out about the deal, the board tried to hide the document in Crane's personnel file, the newspaper reported, a move 6th District Judge David Nye rejected. The board also admitted twice violating the Idaho Open Meeting Law, publicly apologized for the violation and promised to seek training in open meeting law compliance from the Idaho Attorney General’s office or the Bingham County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. Click below for a full report from the AP and the Post Register.

Judge: District ‘trying to hide its decision-making from the public’ re $105K payout

An eastern Idaho judge has ordered the Blackfoot School District to release all documents surrounding a separation agreement and a consulting fee by mid-week, the AP reports. Sixth District Judge David Nye issued the order Friday afternoon in response to an open records lawsuit filed by former Blackfoot teacher Joyce Bingham and the Post Register in Idaho Falls. Bingham and the newspaper sued after the district refused to make public a separation agreement between the school board and former Superintendent Scott Crane, as well as details of a contract payout worth more than $105,000.

“Everything about this case smacks of a public agency trying to hide its decision-making from the public,” the judge wrote. “Parties cannot exempt a public record from disclosure and hide it from the public simply by placing it in a personnel file and declaring the personnel file exemption to be applicable to it.” Click below for the full AP report.

Eastern Idaho school district refusing to release info on $105K payout to ex-superintendent

Here's a news item from the AP and the Post Register: BLACKFOOT, Idaho (AP) ― An eastern Idaho school district has rejected a request by a former teacher and newspaper to turn over a contract payout agreement signed earlier this year with the former superintendent. The Post-Register and former teacher Joyce Bingham asked Blackfoot School District 55 to release the agreement and documents related to a $105,000 payout made the day after Scott Crane retired. School officials have refused to release the documents, citing personnel protection laws. On Tuesday, the Post Register reported (http://bit.ly/Uc3HOt ) the district once again refused to produce the documents at Crane's request. The newspaper and Bingham are also suing the district in state court to get access to the documents. The lawsuit also claims the district violated open meetings laws in reaching agreement with Crane during a closed-door session. Click below for a full report.

Federal courts approve fee break for records

People who access court documents electronically from federal district courts through the PACER system pay 8 cents a page for the privilege, but until this spring, they got the first $10 worth of copies in a year without charge. Now, the Judicial Conference of the United States has approved a change: Users will not be billed unless they’ve racked up more than $10 in PACER charges in a quarter.
    
The federal courts said the impact of the change is “in effect quadrupling the amount of data available without charge.” To set up a PACER account or learn more about the federal courts’ electronic records service, go to www.pacer.gov.

Otter: Idaho needs ‘total and complete transparency’ on public lands

A committee of top real estate professionals was asked to review how Idaho could update its rules for transfers of state endowment lands to match “modern business practices,” and this morning, the panel presented its recommendation to the state’s top elected officials. Among them: Eliminate the requirement for public auctions of endowment lands, and exempt the transactions from the state’s Public Records Act. Idaho Gov. Butch Otter immediately objected.

“We have to make sure that there is total and complete transparency,” the governor declared. “Taking it off public auction inherently reduces the transparency. … I would have a problem with that.” Otter said he’d also oppose exempting state land transactions from the public records act. “Oh yeah,” he said, “and I think every member of the board would.” The state Land Board, which commissioned the report from the committee of professional real estate experts, praised the panel and thanked it for its work. “This board was formed to look at one narrow issue,” said Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden. “There are a lot of other factors we have to take into account … such as can we create a system that will preserve transparency.”

The Land Board is made up of the state’s top elected officials and is charged by the state Constitution with getting the maximum long-term financial return from state endowment lands. Board members didn’t raise objections to other proposals from the panel, to amend the Constitution to eliminate acreage limits on transfers of state land to a single individual or company. Those limits, according to the panel’s report, “do not conform to modern business practices.” The panel also proposed allowing sales of state endowment lands “in any reasonable manner” rather than only by public auction; and changing the Admissions Act that made Idaho a state to remove a clause that requires endowment land to be “sold only at public sale,” instead saying they “shall be sold as provided by Idaho law.”

“Our intent was to provide flexibility to the state, then let the state decide through its laws how best to govern these transactions,” said Robert Phillips, president of Hawkins Companies and a commercial real estate developer. George Kirk, a residential real estate developer and member of the panel, told Otter, “Your points are excellent and well-taken. … There are ramifications both corporate, personal and moral that you bring up.”

The group’s report said, “Participants in private sector and commercial business transactions typically expect confidentiality in negotiations and protection of trade secrets of the parties. Likewise, it is recommended that the same protections be afforded to the state Board of Land Commissioners when negotiating leases, purchases, or sales of state endowment lands,” in order to secure maximum financial returns. Otter said there might be a point during negotiations when not everything is released, but it would all have to become public eventually, he said. Though the panel proposed an ambitious timeline, to present its recommendations to the Legislature this year and then get constitutional amendments on the ballot in the 2010 election, Land Board members said they thought that was unrealistic. “It could be worked out this legislative season,” said residential real estate broker Bryant Forrester of Homeland Realty, but state Controller Donna Jones shook her head.

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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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