First IDOG Seminar: Learning about Open Meetings, Records

Originally published in the Idaho Press Club Communicator, vol. 26, iss. 3, Fall 2004.

By Betsy Russell

photo from McCall seminarA full house of about 50 government workers, reporters and interested citizens gathered in Idaho Falls recently for the first in a statewide series of seminars about open records and meetings.

The openness seminars are sponsored by Idahoans for Openness in Government, or IDOG, a new non-partisan, non-profit coalition that works for openness in government in Idaho. IDOG is partnering with Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden on these seminars, to educate local government folks, the press and the public about what�s required under our open meetings and public records laws. The second one is coming up in McCall, and future seminars are planned in communities around the state over the next two years.

As its president, I�m a little biased about IDOG. But everyone in that room in Idaho Falls got a strong message about openness in government and learned a lot about our laws.
Plus, it was fun. The audience ranged from school district staffers to reporters, from
county records clerks to interested citizens, from police to a mayor to a city treasurer. It was great! IDOG Vice President Dean Miller, edi-tor of the Idaho Falls Post Register, worked with the Attorney General�s office to develop a no-legalese public records course that includes role-playing, real-life examples, some laughs along with some great information, and an excellent overview of the law from Deputy Attorney General Bill von Tagen, an expert on Idaho�s public records and open meetings laws.

During the first seminar, Bob Cooper, spokesman for the Attorney General�s office, joined Miller in several roleplaying skits featuring such characters as �Pushy� the caller and �Grumpy� the clerk; �Lucky,� a reporter who overhears local commissioners holding an illegal meeting at the local diner; �Savvy,� a police chief�s secretary, and �Scoop,� a
reporter who�s just been scooped.

Cooper, playing �Lucky,� looked suitably indignant as Miller, playing a county commissioner at the table behind him in the local diner, led an imaginary discussion with his two fellow commissioners in which they decided to pave a local road to help a crony, agreed to buy some property, and started talking about where to build the new jail when Wasden, playing the role of a referee, interrupted.

�Time out, here,� Wasden called out amid laughter. �What we�ve got here is a pretty serious violation of the open meeting law.�

He told the group, �The public has a right to understand how the public�s business is accomplished.�

The audience was attentive, had specific questions, and enjoyed the session, including the free refreshments.

Among the tips that von Tagen offered were:

  • Public records are public property. Once somebody asks for it, you can�t get rid of it.
  • If an agency doesn�t respond to a public records request within the required time, that�s considered a denial, and the agency can be taken to court and face fines, court costs and attorney�s fees.
  • Most exemptions in the public records law don�t create a privacy right, and don�t bar a public official from releasing the information � they just mean release is not required. In many cases, �You still may be able to release the information,� von Tagen said.
  • When in doubt, open up the meeting. �If you don�t, everybody is going to wonder what you�re up to, and they�re going to put a negative spin on that,� von Tagen told the crowd.

What is IDOG? Like similar coalitions in more than 40 other states, IDOG is a broad-based, non-profit coalition whose mission is to promote open government and freedom of information. IDOG�s board includes people from inside and outside of government, the media, civic organizations and more.

IDOG�s initial project is to put on open-government seminars in communities across Idaho, in partnership with the Idaho Attorney General, the Idaho Association of Counties and the Association of Idaho Cities. IDOG received funding for this project from the National Freedom of Information Coalition through a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. We also received a grant from the Best of the West Foundation.

There are also other projects in the works, including a website that will feature information about IDOG and its activities along with news clips on open records and
open meetings developments around the state. When it goes up, look for it at www.openidaho.org. Public service announcements focusing on citizen access to government are in the works, and IDOG is looking into a future statewide public records audit to determine how our state is doing as far as compliance with public records laws.

You can support IDOG with a membership contribution; it�s $10 for an individual, $100 for an organization, and the first membership year will extend through 2005.

Officers, in addition to myself and Miller, include Anne Abrams of the Idaho State Library, who is secretary/treasurer. Here are IDOG�s other board members:

  • Butch Alford, Lewiston Morning Tribune and Idaho Allied Dailes
  • Rocky Barker, Idaho Statesman
  • Elizabeth Brandt, University of Idaho College of Law
  • Elinor Chehey, League of Women Voters of Idaho
  • Tom Grote, Star-News and Idaho Newspaper Foundation
  • Connie Searles, Idaho State Broadcasters Association
  • and Ben Ysursa, Idaho Secretary of State

Don’t miss it when an IDOG seminar comes to your town!

Betsy Russell is the vice president of the Idaho Press Club. She is a Boise-based reporter for The Spokesman-Review.

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