Clean air group’s suit cites secret sessions

From The Spokesman-Review

State agriculture officials met with seed companies

James Hagengruber, Staff writer, January 5, 2006

Idaho’s open meeting law was violated when state officials held two days of meetings with grass seed company officials without notifying the public, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday by a public health group that’s been pushing for an end to field burning in North Idaho.

The group, Safe Air For Everyone, or SAFE, learned of the December meetings through documents obtained in a request of records and correspondence from the Idaho Department of Agriculture. Decisions on field burning management were made at the sessions, which were held at a hotel in Moscow, Idaho, and neither publicized nor opened to residents, according to a copy of the complaint filed in Idaho’s 4th District Court in Boise.

Patti Gora, executive director of SAFE, believes the meetings are part of a trend toward increased secrecy of state business and are evidence of preference shown to grass growers. “We were shocked,” she said. “We’re appalled at the arrogance of those who are entrusted with guarding public health.”

The complaint was filed Wednesday. SAFE wants the meetings to be declared null and void and each of the six Agriculture Department employees in attendance fined the maximum $150.

Mike Everett, deputy director of the state’s Department of Agriculture, said he was aware of the suit but had not yet reviewed the eight-page document. He would only say that state employees take the open meetings law “very seriously.”

Apart from the lawsuit, Gora said her group has obtained e-mail records that she said are evidence of state employees “mocking” public health advocates. Copies of the e-mails were distributed to the media Wednesday. In an e-mail that Gora said caused particular offense, the state’s burning program manager suggested gathering after the sessions to toast a departing air quality program employee with flaming cocktails. In another e-mail, the same state employee mentioned post-meeting talks ” ‘where we discuss food, drink and/or the meaning of smoke (I burn, therefore I am…?).’ ”

The Idaho Department of Agriculture employee accused of sending the e-mails, Sherm Takatori, refused to comment and referred all questions to the Idaho attorney general’s office.

The lawsuit, however, is only concerned with what happened during the actual meetings. Minutes obtained by SAFE show 19 state, federal and tribal officials attended the sessions. Three representatives from seed companies were also present. Much of the discussion was a recap of the 2005 burning season, which saw a 25 percent increase in fields burned over the previous year on the Rathdrum Prairie and Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation.

Session attendees also noted an increase in the number of public complaints over smoke. Public health advocates have long fought the annual harvest-time practice of burning grass stubble, saying it causes respiratory trauma to thousands of residents in North Idaho and Eastern Washington. The practice is banned in Washington. At least 500 doctors across the region have signed a petition calling for an end to the practice in Idaho.

Bluegrass farmers say burning is the fastest, cheapest method of removing crop stubble. Torching the fields also reduces the need for chemical weed killers on the Rathdrum Prairie, which sits atop the region’s aquifer. The grass seed grown in these fields is used across the nation in lawns and golf courses.

Although field burning increased statewide this year – thanks largely to higher fuel costs that made it more expensive to plow and prepare a field with a tractor – the practice is rapidly dwindling on the Rathdrum Prairie. The flat, fertile ground north of Post Falls was once a carpet of green each summer and the origin of many complaints about field burning. Many of the fields are now subdivisions.

Thousands of acres of grass fields continue to be cultivated and burned south of Coeur d’Alene. State officials worry that growth will only increase pressure to end the practice, according to minutes from the December meeting in Moscow. Many new residents “will not understand the need for field burning and will need information on the process. This will be a challenge in future years.”

Officials at the meeting also decided to boost the maximum allowable number of acres burned each day during next year’s season, according to the lawsuit. This is a policy decision that demands public input, Gora said.

“If the state is serious about protecting public health, then it has to include the public,” Gora said. “They don’t even return our calls.”

From The Spokesman-Review

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