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News >  Idaho

Closed meeting rule advances in Senate

Josh Wright Staff writer

BOISE – Senate Republican leaders’ attempt to allow closed committee meetings for any reason took a step toward approval Friday.

The Senate Judiciary and Rules Committee voted 7-2 to introduce and send the internal Senate rule change to the full Senate. If approved, it would amend a section of the rules that says committee meetings can be closed only for specific reasons, including personnel matters, litigation cases and land negotiations. The change would match Senate rules to current House rules.

“There’s a time for business, and there’s a time also to get in and dig,” said Sen. Mel Richardson, R-Idaho Falls. “Sometimes these meetings can get rather contentious. … You don’t want them to be made public to the world.”

But Sen. Mike Burkett, D-Boise, said all committee meetings, especially the heated ones, should be open to the public. It now will take just a majority vote of the Senate to approve the rule change.

Attorney Allen Derr, who’s representing the Idaho Press Club in a lawsuit against the Legislature over the constitutionality of closed committee meetings, testified that closed meetings send the wrong message.

“It says that we (the Senate) are above the constitution,” Derr said. “The public has a right to know.”

Senate majority leader and committee member Bart Davis of Idaho Falls, who presented the rule change to the committee, said the Senate can set its rules as it wishes and need not abide by state statutes like the Idaho Open Meeting Law. That law forbids all closed meetings of legislative committees.

Of the roughly 5,400 committee meetings held since he’s been in the Legislature, Davis said his opponents have argued that only about half a dozen have been closed. “That’s a pretty good commitment to the people of Idaho,” he said.

All of those closed meetings have occurred in the last two sessions.

“I don’t see the boogeyman in this,” said Sen. Gerry Sweet, R-Meridian. “I don’t believe the rule has been abused in any way.”

But Derr told the senators that potential abuse would be much easier if the rule was amended as proposed.

“To give yourselves that much power … does have the potential to corrupt” in the future, he said.

Burkett said, “If a rule can be abused, it will be abused.”

“My problem with this is that the public is being excluded,” he said. “It’s not the media versus the Legislature battle.”

This rule change is “telling the public that they can’t be here,” he continued. “We need open government at every level.”

Davis responded by saying that as a lifelong citizen of Idaho, “I want open government too. As a taxpayer, I am committed to it.”

Democratic Sen. Kate Kelly of Boise joined Burkett in voting against the rule change.

“I take very seriously the public’s trust. … And I am particularly troubled by this rule,” she said.

In its lawsuit, the Press Club contends that closed meetings violate the Idaho Constitution. Fourth District Judge Kathryn Stricken refused Thursday to reconsider her earlier ruling that legislative committees don’t do the Legislature’s business, so they don’t have to be open to the public. The Press Club plans to appeal the decision to the Idaho Supreme Court.

The Judiciary Committee also voted 7-2 Friday to send two other rule changes proposed by Davis to the floor. One of them would get rid of a section that says that when a Senate rule is inconsistent with state law or a constitutional provision, the rule defers to law or the constitution.

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