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Eye on Boise: Workshops cover Idaho open government laws

It was standing-room only in Sandpoint late last week as 75-plus people filled the Sandpoint Library’s community room for a three-hour workshop on Idaho’s open meeting and public records laws. There were four such sessions in North Idaho in as many days, all sponsored by Idahoans for Openness in Government and featuring Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden.

Those attending ranged from the county sheriff to local elected officials to government employees, reporters, a newly elected state lawmaker and lots of interested citizens. However, the Bonner County Daily Bee, which co-sponsored the session, pointed out the next day that Sandpoint city officials skipped the workshop – and held a controversial, closed-to-the-public meeting about oil and coal train traffic in the region the same afternoon.

Mayor Carrie Logan said, “We had meetings scheduled. Nobody was prevented from attending.”

She said she never heard about the open meetings workshop until the day before, though IDOG had mailed a letter and flier to the city three weeks in advance and followed up with emails to the mayor and council the week before. “It got buried in my onslaught of emails,” Logan said.

City Attorney Scot Campbell said in an email, “I, along with other council members have attended your previous open meeting/public record seminars.” (Disclosure: I’m the president of IDOG, Idaho’s nonprofit open government coalition, and helped conduct all four sessions.)

At the Sandpoint open meetings and public records workshop, Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane told the crowd, “When in doubt, open it up.” He said, “In the simplest terms, the Open Meeting Law is your ticket to the show, and the show is government.”

The coal train meeting was an informational session, Logan said, designed to allow a presentation on the latest information about the risks of the train traffic to an invited group including the mayors of Dover, Ponderay and Bonners Ferry, state Sen. Shawn Keough, two staffers from the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, one county commissioner, the mayor and one city council member.

“It was just informational on behalf of people that are interested in spreading the word about the oil and coal issues,” Logan said. The PowerPoint presentation from the meeting may be presented later to the other cities’ councils, she said.

During the meeting, a member of the public knocked on the door, entered and asked if it was an open meeting; he was told no and turned away.

“No decisions were made – it was a conversation,” Logan said. “It never occurred to me to notice it up as a public meeting. … It just didn’t rise to that.”

Campbell noted that no quorum was present of any government board that could make a decision on the issue, so technically there was no violation of the Idaho Open Meeting Law. “Based on the time constraints, a public meeting would not have been as effective as a small meeting of local leaders talking to Senator Keough,” he said.

Asked if it would have hurt to let the public in, Logan said it wouldn’t, but added, “We were in a small, cramped room.”

Wasden, the lead presenter at the open meetings and public records workshop, told the Sandpoint crowd, “It’s important that we have an understanding about how to access information in our government. It’s really important, and the reason for that is the greatest strength in our system is public involvement. … Our system works because people can have access to information.”

The sessions featured interactive skits, with audience members playing the roles, to demonstrate how the Open Meeting Law and Public Records Act are supposed to work – or in some cases, how they’re not. Attendees gave the sessions high marks in evaluations; all left with multiple handouts including copies of the attorney general’s manuals on the Open Meeting Law and Public Records Act.

The Sandpoint session was the 33rd open government seminar IDOG and Wasden have conducted in Idaho since 2004. The project is funded in part by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation through the National Freedom of Information Coalition.

Eighty people attended the Wednesday evening session in Coeur d’Alene; close to 30 on Tuesday night in Moscow; and close to 50 on Monday night in Lewiston. The sessions reached more than 230 people in North Idaho all told. All were free and open to the public.

In each case, the local newspapers co-sponsored the workshops; the Coeur d’Alene session was co-sponsored by the Coeur d’Alene Press and The Spokesman-Review.

Welcoming the crowd in Coeur d’Alene, Press managing editor Mike Patrick said if the two competing newspapers can work together to promote better knowledge of the state’s open government laws, everyone can.

Betsy Z. Russell can be reached at betsyr@spokesman.com or (208) 336-2854.