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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Idaho bills trample on principle of open records

With public records law, the default position ought to be that the government discloses information. Those seeking “relief” from transparency need to demonstrate a need that supersedes the public’s right to know.

A couple of public records exemptions sailing through the Idaho Legislature do not meet this test.

First, Senate Bill 1346 seeks to block from public view the nutrient management plans for concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). The feedlots are where cattle are fattened up before being slaughtered. With their huge amounts of manure, they are the target of complaints over smell and potential water pollution.

The state conducts inspections and writes reports that evaluate how often pens are cleaned, manure removal, water management practices and so on. Because of an Idaho Supreme Court ruling blocking other avenues to feedlot information, these reports are about the only way the public can gauge whether feedlots are in compliance and whether the state is conducting oversight.

The Idaho Cattle Association complains that the reports might contain proprietary information that would give a competitor an edge. But they all must submit to inspections, so the information playing field is level. Plus, where is the evidence that inspectors are jotting down trade secrets?

But the real harm in this argument lies in the low bar it sets for seeking public records exemptions. In essence, the standard becomes: If something could happen, the state needs to head it off at the pass. The competing interest of a public’s right to know is treated like, well, manure.

Similarly, House Bill 531 seeks to keep secret all of the recipients of hunting and fishing licenses. This arose when an opponent of the state’s wolf hunt started posting the names of hunters online. It is the fear of harassment, as opposed to demonstrated harm, that drives the bill. It bears a resemblance to the effort to bar disclosure of the names of initiative and referendum petition signers in Washington state.

Harassment could happen, but the burden of proof ought to be on the party seeking public records exemptions. We certainly don’t advocate the harassment of hunters, but there are laws in place to thwart that. If they need to be strengthened, do so. If they need to be enforced, do so.

Gutting public records law ought to be the last resort, not the first. These bills have it backward.