Deputy Idaho Attorney General Brian Kane held up a copy of the light-blue Idaho Open Meeting Law Manual. “This is your ticket to the show, the show being government,” he told a crowd of nearly 60 people gathered at Boise State Public Radio’s riverfront public meeting room on Tuesday evening. “It doesn’t give you the ability to participate in the meeting,” he noted.
So if a board or council has 50 angry people show up at its meeting wanting to say their piece, “That’s not an open meeting problem. You might have a pretty significant customer-service problem.” But the Open Meeting Law guarantees all those folks the chance to be there and watch their government in action, he said. “That oversight is important – we’re here to do the public’s business in public.”
Tuesday’s Boise session was the latest in a round of free public workshops on Idaho’s open meetings and public records laws organized by Idahoans for Openness in Government, or IDOG; recent sessions have been held in Nampa and McCall. Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden has led all the sessions, along with Kane and myself as IDOG president. The audience participated in interactive skits that helped highlight how to comply with the laws – and how not to. There were stories, laughs, lots of questions and plentiful refreshments, thanks to co-sponsors Boise State Public Radio and the Idaho Statesman.
Among the issues that came up at the Boise session: Idaho Statesman Managing Editor Bill Manny asked, “So going into an executive session is not a vow of secrecy?” If a board member thinks the closed session was inappropriate or feels the topic is too important to keep secret, there’s no penalty in the Open Meeting Law for that member speaking out? The answer was no. “You could be subjecting your entity to some significant legal liability,” Kane said, so a board member would want to think carefully before doing that. “It could be a pretty expensive blab.” But, he said, “The First Amendment is probably your best protection for your right to blab.”
Idaho’s public records law is “content-based,” Kane explained to the group. “The test is not whether or not you made the record on a public machine. The test is whether you transact the public’s business.”
In addition, public agencies can’t ask a requester why they want the information – they can only ask what the requester is looking for, in an effort to help them find it. Kane said some government agencies complain that people are just on “fishing expeditions,” but holding up the bright-red Idaho Public Records Law Manual, he said, “The public records law is your fishing license.”
When the group discussed the “sole remedy” for challenging an improper denial of a public records request – going to court – audience members said there should be some easier, less costly way to appeal. “We’ve got a great law, however I think it’s a boon for attorneys,” said one member of the audience. “We need help from our elected officials. … Help citizens be able to implement and use this law without being stonewalled.”
Several elected officials were in the audience, and Kane noted that Gov. Butch Otter’s public records ombudsman, Cally Younger, has been looking at just that; she’s convened a stakeholders group to examine that issue on which both Kane and I serve, along with representatives of cities, counties, courts and more. That work still is ongoing.
“You have raised a valid governmental criticism,” Kane said. “We’re working on it. Unfortunately, government work moves slowly sometimes.”
Wasden said, “Most agencies are really trying to do the right thing. There are some that are recalcitrant.”
IDOG is a 501c3 non-profit coalition for open government; its work is 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 info on the group on its website here.
In their evaluations of the session, attendees gave it high marks. One elected official summed up what he learned as: “Conduct public business in public.” Others noted specific points, from needing to post meeting agendas at the agency or place of meeting as well as on the internet; to how to make minutes better; to a reporter’s comment she learned useful information about public records requests including “what I can ask for and how to ask.”
“Great job and fun evening!” wrote a state employee. “It’s a great knowledge base for anyone regarding public records and open meeting laws,” wrote another. Wrote a local elected board member, “I think now I’ll keep out of jail,” noting that he’ll avoid Facebook discussions of items pending before his agency to keep from starting a “serial meeting” that could run afoul of the Open Meeting Law. Another elected official wrote of learning “how watchful we need to be, and that we should just review our practices.”
Wrote a citizen, “It’s nice to know the public’s rights.”