Open meetings forum draws crowd

From the State Journal

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Workshop focuses on public’s rights

By Dan Boyd Journal Writer

POCATELLO – Although they don’t always have the right to participate, citizens do possess inalienable rights to watch what’s done with their tax dollars, state attorney general’s office representatives said Friday.

During a three-hour-long workshop at Idaho State University that drew more than 100 attendees, media members and state lawyers spelled out the details of Idaho’s oft-misunderstood open meetings laws.

“This is not about thinking outside the box, this is about staying well inside the box,” advised Bill von Tagen, the state’s deputy attorney general. “When in doubt, open the meeting.

“(In many cases), most people don’t care what you’re doing until you close the meeting.”

With state lawmakers, reporters and students in the crowd, the event sought to serve an educational role in explaining when a board or governing body can and can’t close its doors.

“In some states, county commissioners can’t get into a car together without posting a notice they’re having a meeting,” said Dean Miller, managing editor of the Post-Register newspaper in Idaho Falls and one of the workshop’s organizers.

Idaho has no such rules, though officials found to be conducting de facto business in a public place without notifying the public are subject to a $150 fine.

Bannock County Prosecutor Mark Hiedeman said he was encouraged to see a large number of people who weren’t government officials in attendance.

“We’ve had some issues with open meetings here,” he said, referring specifically to turmoil surrounding School District 25’s handling of personnel matters in recent years. “We haven’t fined any local figures, but there have been some close calls.”

Hiedeman said a combination of ignorance, embarrassment and media paranoia are the usual reasons boards or governing bodies run afoul of the law.

In Idaho, the legislative and judicial branches, unlike most local entities, are allowed to close certain meetings because the state’s Constitution allows them to set their own rules.

But von Tagen said elected and local officials alike should remember the government, in its purest essence, belongs to the people.

“People get to see their government, warts and all,” he said. Friday’s event, which was sponsored by the Idaho State Journal, was one of the most highly attended of a series of similar workshops that have been conducted around the state. The final workshop happens Monday in Twin Falls.

Dan Boyd covers politics, higher education and natural resource issues for the Journal. He can be reached at 239-3168 or by e-mail at dboyd@journalnet.com.

From the State Journal

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