Court case should reveal new tenets of record law

From the Times-News

Observe carefully how the Idaho Supreme Court decides a case involving improper e-mail messages between two public employees. Pay even closer attention to how the court rules on a financial settlement related to the same matter.

Those issues of the public’s right to observe government are central to the case involving The Spokesman-Review newspaper of Spokane, Wash., and officials in Kootenai County. The ruling is expected this summer and could have far-reaching implications for government agencies throughout Idaho.

Supreme Court justices heard arguments last week on the dispute involving Kootenai County Prosecutor Bill Douglas, former Juvenile Drug Court Supervisor Marina Kalani, and hundreds of e-mails written between them.

The case is an appeal from a July 2005 ruling by 2nd District Judge John R. Stegner. The Spokesman-Review sued to see the e-mail records in order to investigate the drug court’s demise, and whether it was tied to an inappropriate working relationship between Douglas and Kalani.

When the drug court was dissolved, Kalani filed a claim against the county and got a $70,000 settlement through the Idaho Counties Risk Management Program. ICRMP is an insurance payout system funded by taxpayer money. It has funded similar settlements reached in southern Idaho counties.

Stegner ruled in favor of the newspaper for public access to the e-mails under Idaho’s Public Records Law. Kalani appealed and her lawyer argued that the e-mails were personal in nature, and warranted exemption from the law.

That’s a feeble argument when the officials worked on public time using computers bought on the public’s dime. Stegner’s ruling should send a message to other local and state officials that the electronic age does not exempt them from public record laws. E-mail expedites government transactions, but messages sent are still subject to public disclosure.

Yet the same public record laws are more intricate with the actual settlement. Stegner ruled the Kootenai County settlement with Kalani was a public document because it involves public business and payout of public funds. But state laws only require that “statistical data and actual amounts paid” be released to the public.

The judge called that language the equivalent of a poke in the public’s eye.

“Should public records such as this be exempt from disclosure, the public’s ability to monitor actions of agencies like ICRMP and to be aware of how public funds are expended by this agency would be seriously curtailed.”

Fast-forward to this month’s arguments before the justices, and it’s easy to see the relevance to all local government. The question of whether e-mails are public records should be a soft pitch for the high court. But if the ruling to seal settlement terms is also reaffirmed – all because of terse language in state laws – it points to a larger fight.

When courts can’t force government to reveal information directly related to the use of taxes, legislative remedies should be necessary. Taxpayers finally deserve a right to see how and why their funds are spent on surreptitious legal deals.

From the Times-News

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