Moscow, Lewiston sessions focus on open meetings law

photo from Lewiston seminarView photos from our Lewiston and Moscow seminars.

From the Lewiston Tribune.

By Joel Mills

MOSCOW — When Idaho’s narrowly defined statutes allow, government should always give up requested documents and allow the public into government meetings. That was one of the primary messages Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden and his deputy, William von Tagen, delivered to about 50 public officials, journalists and citizens at an open government workshop Thursday at the University of Idaho.

Wasden and von Tagen will hold another workshop from 1 to 3 p.m. today in the Williams Conference Center on the west side of the Lewis-Clark State College campus in Lewiston. (The Lewiston session also drew more than 50 attendees.)

Wasden said his office often fields questions from officials and reporters who are confused about Idaho’s two open government laws, one for public records, the other for open meetings.

“We find that half the time, the public officials are wrong,” in their interpretation of the laws, Wasden said. “Which of course means the other half of the time the media is wrong.”

The workshops are held periodically around the state to educate both sides — and the public — about the laws in hopes of harmonizing their at-times adversarial relationships.

And to flip that relationship on its head, Wasden staged several skits, with reporters acting as public officials and public officials acting as reporters.

One skit focused on the right of public boards or commissions to enter into closed, or executive, session.

In the skit, an imaginary reporter has a conversation with an imaginary city clerk about the city council going into executive session to discuss a pending lawsuit against the city.

The reporter gripes that she should be allowed into the closed meeting since the council is dealing with taxpayer money. But the clerk responds — correctly, according to Wasden — that the public does indeed have a right to know what their elected officials have in store for their money – but not when it interferes with their ability to negotiate a potential settlement.

“If you (publicly) say the range is between $75,000 and $150,000, what do you think the opening bid is going to be?” von Tagen asked later.

Executive sessions are similarly used to discuss narrowly defined issues of hiring, personnel evaluation or discipline, labor negotiation and to consider pending or probable lawsuits. Records exempt from disclosure and property purchases can also be considered in executive session. Twenty-four hour notice must also be given before the executive session. And no final decisions may be made in such a meeting.

Another skit had Latah County Commissioner Paul Kimmell play the role of “Lucky the reporter,” with three reporters playing commissioners. Lucky overhears them cutting deals at a restaurant. Playing referee, Wasden pulled his hypothetical yellow flag and fined the “commissioners” $150 each.

“It’s not illegal for them to just hang out,” Wasden said, “but they haven’t given notice about the meeting, and they’re conducting county business.”

The fine jumps to $300 for each additional offense by a public official.

During a break, Wasden said he has only imposed fines two or three times in his three-plus years as attorney general. But his office is currently investigating possible violations in Canyon and Ada counties, he added.

The second half of the workshop dealt with public records. Wasden urged officials to give out requested documents whenever they can to avoid wasted time, energy and money.

In another skit, a rookie reporter gingerly asks a stubborn clerk for some sensitive, but public, documents. The clerk says no, the documents are personal. Referee Wasden again pulled his flag.

“Time out, time out! We’re going to call roughing the constituent here,” he joked. “You have to give up that document.”

Wasden also pointed out that the Idaho public records law prohibits the official from asking why the reporter or citizen wants the information.

“It’s irrelevant to the government why (he) wants that document,” he said.

Items exempt from public inspection include certain private personnel documents, records of ongoing law enforcement investigations, trade secrets and sensitive information about the location of endangered species. Draft legislation is also exempt. “The Legislature takes care of its own,” von Tagen quipped in a moment of self-proclaimed cynicism.

After the workshop, Wasden repeated his overall message.

“Even though a meeting may be closed, that doesn’t mean it has to be closed.”

The workshops in Moscow and Lewiston are sponsored by Idahoans for Openness in Government, the Moscow League of Women Voters, the Idaho Press Club and TPC Holdings, which owns the Lewiston Tribune and the Moscow-Pullman Daily News. Idaho’s open government laws and explanations are available through the attorney general’s office and are posted on its Web site at www.idaho.gov/ag or at www.openidaho.org.

From the Lewiston Tribune.

—— Mills may be contacted at jmills@lmtribune.com.

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