Grant helps open government project

From the Associated Press

By JOHN MILLER
Associated Press Writer

BOISE, Idaho (AP) _ To open or not to open government, that is the question Shakespearean actors may soon help answer.

Idahoans for Openness in Government last month won a $30,000 national grant to enlist the Idaho Shakespeare Festival troupe in a new video on state laws meant to keep the public’s business public.

The group includes journalists, law professors and state officials and was formed in 2004 to educate the media and public officials about Idaho’s open meeting and records laws. The grant came in time for Sunshine Week, a nationwide effort to draw attention to the public’s right to know.

”People who work in government have a lot of questions about open government, open records and the media,” said Betsy Russell, IDOG president and a reporter at the Spokesman-Review newspaper. ”That’s what we need: Everyone to know what the laws are, and to know how to comply with them.”

The open meeting law was enacted in 1974 and lawmakers passed an open records law in 1990.

And in three years, IDOG and Attorney General Lawrence Wasden have partnered on a dozen seminars around the state on open government issues, helping reduce confusion.
Still, questions regularly arise about how the laws should be applied, Russell said, and the new DVD will allow the group’s message to reach more people.

The money for the production comes from the National Freedom of Information Coalition, through the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Idaho Public Television will help produce the videos, to highlight issues now bedeviling local elected officials, the courts and the state Legislature.

For instance, there’s an ongoing Supreme Court battle over an illegal private meeting by the Ada County Commission in 2005. This lent momentum to a proposed law change in the 2007 Legislature.

Meanwhile, in Boise County, in the mountains north of Boise, foes of a large subdivision plan sued the county commission last year, alleging it illegally barred them from a July meeting where the development was approved.

And in September, members of the Teton County Commission in eastern Idaho agreed to fines of $75 _ half the maximum penalty _ after meeting secretly in May.
Though that case was resolved, concerns over openness and local government ethics affected the outcome of the 2006 election, said new Commissioner Larry Young, who ousted one of the incumbents.

”The one violation was maybe just the last straw,” Young told The Associated Press. ”An amalgamation of things can poison the public perception. We’re not talking about national security. This is county government, which should be the people’s business.”

Idaho’s open meetings law obligates Wasden as the attorney general to enforce it for state government. Also, he’s often called in to prosecute cases such as the one in Ada County that so far has cost taxpayers more than $30,000 in legal fees. Commissioners there are fighting paying fines of as much as $150.

But it isn’t just local government that sometimes struggles with the law’s nuances, said Wasden.

He also fields queries from reporters, he said.

”A lot of media folks are coming in from other states, and while they may be familiar with the federal Freedom of Information Act and open records provisions of other states, they don’t know Idaho’s,” Wasden said.

Aides in Wasden’s office say they had received two to three inquiries per week about possible open-meetings or open-records violations before the IDOG seminars began three years ago. Now, it’s down to about one per month, said AG spokesman Bob Cooper.

Wasden will be featured along with the Shakespearean actors in the upcoming DVD.

The open-records group’s leaders say the production will include examples of what the state’s laws permit and forbid, storytelling, commentary _ and where the public can turn for resources should they feel they’ve been wronged by a violation.

”It’s a combination of vigilance and education,” said Elinor Chehey, a board member from the League of Women Voters in Boise. ”People are interested in seeing things happen out in the open.”

From the Associated Press

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