Washington, Idaho rank far apart on openness

From The Spokesman-Review

Betsy Z. Russell
Staff writer

BOISE – A new national survey ranks Washington fourth in the nation for governmental integrity, openness and accountability – and Idaho 44th.

The survey, conducted by the Chicago-based Better Government Association, compared open records laws, open meeting laws, whistleblower laws, campaign finance requirements and conflict-of-interest laws, to create a government “integrity index.”

Idaho scored particularly poorly for its open meeting and conflict of interest laws. As one of just four states with no requirement for state legislators to disclose their personal finances, Idaho tied for last place with a zero score in the conflict-of-interest category, while Washington was ranked first in the nation.

Idaho state Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake, said, “I think we need to stop and do a little introspective, and ask ourselves what’s going on.”

State Sen. Kate Kelly, D-Boise, who has sponsored ethics legislation, said, “It doesn’t come as a surprise. It’s just one more indication that this is an area we need to focus on.”

Though Washington fared well in the 50-state survey, Jason Mercier, director of the Center for Government Reform in Olympia, said, “This is a good survey of who’s got the best practices out there, whose laws are worth taking a look at. But the more interesting question to me is how are states actually implementing the laws they have on the books.”

Washington has strong open meetings and public records laws, Mercier said. “The problem: There are violations constantly.”

The state is involved in litigation over violations of the public records law, he said. “Just because you have a tool in place, that’s half the battle. Now you have to have elected officials overseeing those tools who’ll execute them properly.”

Washington has set up a Sunshine Committee to review the numerous exemptions in its public records law; Mercier said that committee just decided this week to recommend reversing two state Supreme Court decisions limiting public access to documents due to attorney-client privilege and work product rules.

The Washington Legislature will receive the committee’s first report of recommendations this year.

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden said he’s less concerned over national rankings than over how Idaho’s laws are working for Idaho. “The open meeting law ought to meet the needs of the respective states – we don’t do business the same way they do in Washington or Illinois or other locales, we do business the way we do it here in Idaho,” he said. “I do think we have an affirmative open meeting law. We are working to refine it.”

The survey ranked Idaho 44th in the nation for its open meeting law, and tied for last on conflict-of-interest laws in the form of legislative financial disclosure requirements.

Wasden investigated the State Board of Education in February for possible violation of the state’s open meeting law but concluded that while the board may have violated the law, he couldn’t prove, under a recent state Supreme Court decision, that they’d “knowingly” done so.

“We’re working on some improvements” to the law, Wasden said. “That’s an issue that we’re trying to address right now. … We’re wrestling with exactly that.”

Jorgenson said he’s also interested in legislation to improve Idaho’s law. “I think there is too much gray area in open meetings,” he said.

Wasden said he’s also working to promote compliance with Idaho’s open government laws. “It’s very important that government in this state operate under the statutes as they’re written, and it’s important in terms of maintaining the integrity of our governmental systems and our citizens’ ability to interact with their government.”

Though Idaho was ranked low in the survey for its open meeting law, the state ranked highly for its whistleblower laws – 9th in the nation – and was in the middle of the pack for open records laws, at 24th, and campaign finance rules, at 29th.

Washington ranked 16th for its open records law, 15th for its whistleblower laws, 28th for campaign finance requirements, 15th for its open meeting law, and first for conflict-of-interest laws.

The top-ranked state was New Jersey; the worst was South Dakota.

Betsy Z. Russell can be reached toll-free at (866) 336-2854 or bzrussell@gmail.com

From The Spokesman-Review

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