More than 230 people throughout North Idaho attended open government seminars last week in Sandpoint, Coeur d’Alene, Moscow and Lewiston. Each of the sessions, sponsored by Idahoans for Openness in Government, 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. “My hope is that even if we are not able to sing in tune, we recognize that there is a sheet of music,” Wasden told the capacity crowd of nearly 100 in Coeur d’Alene.
The attorney general told the group in Moscow that some complain that people who make public records requests are “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 Sandpoint gathering, “Anytime you have a question with the open meeting law … resolve all doubts in favor of openness.”
Led by Wasden, Kane and myself (I’m the president of IDOG, Idahoans for Openness in Government), the sessions included humorous interactive skits that let participants demonstrate some of the requirements of the state’s open meetings and public records laws, along with what to do – and what not to do – to comply. IDOG has held these sessions around Idaho since 2004, and the Lewiston seminar Thursday night was its 23rd. The project is made possible in part by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation through the National Freedom of Information Coalition. Partners in the project include the attorney general’s office, the Idaho Press Club, the Association of Idaho Cities and the Idaho Association of Counties.
Co-sponsoring the North Idaho seminars were newspapers throughout the region: the Bonner County Daily Bee in Sandpoint, The Spokesman-Review and Coeur d’Alene Press in Coeur d’Alene, the Moscow-Pullman Daily News in Moscow, and the Lewiston Tribune in Lewiston.
Lewiston Tribune owner A.L. “Butch” Alford, a charter board member of IDOG, told a crowd of 50, “Tonight’s mission is to enlighten the public, government officials from all levels and the press.”
All were well-represented, from city council members to board clerks to reporters and editors to state lawmakers. 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 sessions were an eye-opener for some in the audience, including one participant in Lewiston who has been working with a county task force and 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 Wasden after the session on the steps he should take to make sure he’s in compliance.
Among the points that got a lot of attention:
• 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.
• Emails are public records.
• Agencies can’t take 10 days to decide whether 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.
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,” Kane told the Sandpoint audience.
Issues covered included recent changes in the law, including a “cure” process for agencies that allows them to acknowledge and correct an open meeting law violation.
“Open meetings and public records are very important to us as a citizenry,” Wasden said. “In order for citizens to be involved, they have to know and understand what their government is doing.”
IDOG likely will hold another session this spring in Boise.