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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Closed meeting on grass burning angers activists

Smoke appears to be descending again over the annual meeting between Idaho grass growers and the government officials charged with regulating smoke from field burning.

A clean air group that was denied access to last year’s year-end meeting – and sued the state – has again been told the meeting is private. This year’s meeting is also being held on the Nez Perce Reservation, where state open meeting laws don’t reign supreme, said Karen Lindholdt, a Spokane attorney representing the clean air group, Safe Air For Everyone.

“This is an attempt to evade the law and avoid giving the public information they are entitled to,” Lindholdt said, adding, “What’s there to hide?”

Safe Air For Everyone sued the state over being prohibited from last year’s meeting. The lawsuit was recently dismissed, but the group filed an appeal this week with the state Supreme Court. The group has also fought the state’s recent decision to keep secret the location of fields slated to be burned.

Government watchdogs, including the author of Idaho’s 1974 open meeting law, say the spat illustrates the state’s increasing willingness to conduct public policy discussions behind closed doors.

State and tribal officials, however, point out both the grass growers and the clean air group are being given an hour to present information at the session. They also stress that the meeting is “interagency” and not subject to open meeting laws.

The two-day meeting begins Monday in Lapwai, Idaho. Attending will be representatives from tribes, the Idaho State Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. This year, about 2,000 acres of bluegrass stubble were burned on the Rathdrum Prairie. Thousands more acres were lit on the Coeur d’Alene and Nez Perce reservations. Washington outlaws the practice.

Grass farmers say burning their field stubble is an inexpensive method of renewing fields and clearing weeds without using chemicals. Public health advocates claim the smoke threatens human health.

Patti Gora, director of Safe Air For Everyone, said she wants to attend the annual review meeting simply to keep on top of any changes in how field burning is managed. She said she will be allowed to present information for one hour and listen to a presentation by grass growers, but then must leave. It’s not known if the growers will be allowed to stay.

Karen Boshers, coordinator for ISDA’s crop residue disposal program, said the decision over who may attend the meeting was made by the Nez Perce Tribe. “They’re the ones deciding if it’s open or closed,” she said. “They’re pretty much laying the ground rules.”

An attorney for the Nez Perce Tribe, who asked not to be quoted, refused to say if the tribe had any provisions for open meetings or if the grass growers would be allowed to attend the entire two-day session. “This is a unique circumstance,” he said, refusing to elaborate.

The attorney also refused to discuss the purpose of the meetings or say whether the state had requested the tribe host it. “What’s the story?” he asked, when pressed, “There’s a meeting being held by three governments.”

Last year, the state was sued after it hosted the year-end meeting in Moscow. Gora said she was not allowed to attend but grass growers were. She and her group’s attorney also contend policy decisions involving field burning were made during the sessions, including changes to smoke management guidelines.

“They’re not letting the public have any input into those really, really important life-changing decisions,” Gora said. “If we’re going to have effective governance in this state, it’s really good to have it be transparent for all stakeholders, not just one segment.”

In October, 4th District Judge Kathryn Sticklen dismissed the suit, saying the state employees who attended the meeting “did not constitute a governing body of a public agency.” Sticklen also ruled that Safe Air For Everyone failed to demonstrate that any attendees had any authority in the “management of field burning.”

Gora said she was “stunned” by the decision, in part because the state’s crop residue disposal program manager was at the session. The group also obtained minutes from the meeting that showed decisions had been made. Months after the lawsuit was filed, the decisions were not implemented, Gora said. “It’s a shell game they’re playing.”

Judge Sticklen, who has also ruled in recent years against opening up legislative committee hearings to the public, wrote that the field burning meeting was a “multi-lateral meeting convened by independent representatives from various governmental entities for the purpose of coordinating multi-jurisdictional issues related to the management of agricultural field burning in Idaho.”

Lindholt, the attorney for Safe Air For Everyone, said the ruling severely undercuts the public’s ability to observe the workings of government. The judge is “setting precedent for allowing any agency to escape obligations of the open meeting act,” she said. “If they’re going to be having these group sessions, these meetings to exchange information and make recommendations, the policy’s pretty clear in Idaho – they need to be open.”

Even though the state won the latest legal round, Lindholdt believes it has moved the location of the meeting to a reservation to evade the open meeting law. Previous meetings have been held on state turf.

“Gee, all of a sudden this year’s meeting is not being facilitated by the state,” Lindholt said. “Hmm, that’s interesting – it also happens to be on an Indian reservation not subject to open meeting laws.”

Even if the meetings were held in Mexico, Idaho’s Department of Agriculture is subject to the state’s open meeting laws, said former state Rep. Gary Ingram, who wrote the original law.

“There’s no escaping that. They’ve got to conduct the meetings under state law,” said Ingram, a Republican now living in Coeur d’Alene.

He has been a vocal critic of recent moves by the Legislature to close committee hearings. “They’ve got so many exceptions now to the open meeting law,” he said.

Ingram said he ran for office because he felt too much business was being conducted in private. In the early 1970s, votes seemed to be a mere formality while all the important deliberations took place behind closed doors, he said. Ingram said he worries the past is beginning to be repeated.

“I don’t know why these people want to keep it closed,” he said. “Geez, open the door and let some air in.”