Courtwatch Awarded 2005 Max Dalton Open Government Award

Award winner Teri OttensCourtwatch, a Canyon County citizens group, has been named the winner of the 2005 Max Dalton Open Government Award, a $1,000 public service award sponsored by the Idaho Newspaper Foundation.

Courtwatch joined forces with the Angie Leon Citizens Task Force following the murder of Angie Leon of Caldwell in May 2003 by her estranged husband, Able Leon, who was released from jail a few weeks earlier despite a long history of domestic violence against Angie Leon and fears by Angie that she would be harmed by her husband. The group wanted to know how Able Leon was able to “fall through the cracks” of the law-enforcement and judicial system and be set free despite his obvious danger to his wife and family.

Through extensive research, including frequent public records requests under the Idaho Public Records Act, the group found numerous flaws in the system, including poor record-keeping, inadequate procedures by prosecutors and lack of information provided to judges. The group made a series of recommendations to improve the prosecution of domestic violence cases and continues to monitor the court system in Canyon County.

The group earned the Max Dalton Open Government Award because of its persistent use of Idaho’s public records despite roadblocks put up by public agencies, INF Executive Director Tom Grote said. In its report, Courtwatch cited numerous instances in which agencies were unresponsive to public records request, charged inappropriate fees for copies or showed a general lack of understanding of the public records law.

“Courtwatch was not deterred in their legitimate requests for public records, even though the obstacles they faced would have frustrated many citizens,” Grote said. “Because they were dogged in their efforts, the group advanced the public interest by discovering and reporting serious flaws in the legal system.”

The Max Dalton Open Government Award has been given each year since 1999 to a citizen or group judged to be an outspoken advocate of openness in either public records or public meetings on the state or local level.

Max D. Dalton was killed, at age 78, in November 1997 by squatters on his ranch in Costa Rica. Dalton had spent most of his life in Idaho where he operated a Meridian milk-testing business. In 1981, Dalton filed a public records lawsuit that resulted in a 1984 landmark Idaho Supreme Court ruling that reinforced the right of every Idaho citizen to have swift, convenient access to state records.

In the years since the Dalton decision, the state’s public records law has become undermined with dozens of loopholes requested by special interests, state agencies and city and county governments.

“By honoring those who emulate Max Dalton’s example, we hope more citizens will take personal action against needless government secrecy in Idaho,” Grote said.

The Idaho Newspaper Foundation is a non-profit organization founded in 1983.

From the Idaho Newspaper Foundation

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