When Rep. Linden Bateman, R-Idaho Falls, today proposed sharply increasing fines for violating the Idaho Open Meeting Law, he ran into a buzz saw of opposition from Reps. Vito Barbieri, Pete Nielsen, Brent Crane and Lynn Luker; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
“Rep. Bateman, I’m appalled at this tenfold increase here,” declared Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens. “How does this act as a deterrent? Isn’t the public disclosure that such a thing happened, and being fined whatever it may be, enough to allow the public servant to recognize that they’re in violation of this rule?”
Bateman said he was only proposing increasing the maximum penalties, and he proposed a big increase – from $50 to $500 for violations, and from $500 to $5,000 for knowing or repeated violations – to reflect inflation since the Open Meeting Law first was enacted in 1974. “This is a serious business, I think, violations of open meeting law,” Bateman told the House State Affairs Committee. “It’s a deterrent. You won’t have many prosecutions, I’ll admit, but it’s on the books.”
Nielsen, R-Mountain Home, said he thought a tenfold increase in a single year was too much, and suggested a smaller increase. Luker said he wants the existing Open Meeting Law changed so that repeat violations within 12 months don’t bring the higher fine unless they’re “willful” violations; Barbieri said he agreed.
Crane posed a hypothetical: What if six City Council members, during a long meeting, went in a back room for a snack during a recess in the meeting, and four of them were there eating at the same time? “Would they then be subject to the penalties and it would cost them $5,000 to go back there and have a break?” asked Crane, R-Nampa.
Bateman said no. “No prosecutor in his right mind would ever prosecute under that,” he told Crane. Plus, officials don’t violate the Open Meeting Law just by being in the same place – they violate it by conducting public business outside an open meeting. So snacking wouldn’t count, unless they were debating on council issues while they were at it.
Luker said he’s concerned about low- or unpaid local officials. “They’re just there trying to do their best, and they get sucked into a meeting that maybe they shouldn’t have been sucked into,” he said.
Bateman said a group of his constituents asked him to propose the big increase in the fines. “They want to be tough. I’m representing my constituents,” he said.
“I had the privilege to know the legislator who wrote the Sunshine Law when I came here 30 years ago, Gary Ingram,” Bateman told the committee. “He wrote the act, it was fresh off the press, and I recall just almost every speech he gave in the House he found a way to reference it. He just believed that public business should be conducted in the public and we should have adequate deterrence for violation of the Open Meeting Law.” He added, “I think we need to be perhaps more aggressive in this – our prosecuting attorneys should be more aggressive. That’s the public trust, and public business should be conducted in public.”
Rep. Kathy Sims, R-Coeur d’Alene, backed Bateman’s bill. “This is a maximum,” she noted. “What I’ve found in my district is the prosecuting attorneys are reluctant to even pay attention to this because of the fines being so small, and in my area it has been an issue many, many times. So this will make a prosecuting attorney think more seriously about a complaint that’s been filed. I think this is justified.”
Rep. Gayle Batt, R-Wilder, agreed, saying, “I think this is the people’s business … and they have a right to know, and it should be done openly.” She moved to introduce Bateman’s bill. Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, offered a substitute motion to return it to Bateman and ask him to amend it to half the increase, to better match inflation since 1974. Before the committee could vote on that, Bateman asked unanimous consent to return the bill to him. “We’ll come back with one that’s been adjusted somewhat,” he said.