From The Spokesman-Review
Betsy Z. Russell
BOISE â€“ A new national survey ranks Washington fourth in the nation for governmental integrity, openness and accountability â€“ 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 â€œintegrity index.â€
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, â€œI think we need to stop and do a little introspective, and ask ourselves whatâ€™s going on.â€
State Sen. Kate Kelly, D-Boise, who has sponsored ethics legislation, said, â€œIt doesnâ€™t come as a surprise. Itâ€™s just one more indication that this is an area we need to focus on.â€
Though Washington fared well in the 50-state survey, Jason Mercier, director of the Center for Government Reform in Olympia, said, â€œThis is a good survey of whoâ€™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.â€
Washington has strong open meetings and public records laws, Mercier said. â€œThe problem: There are violations constantly.â€
The state is involved in litigation over violations of the public records law, he said. â€œJust because you have a tool in place, thatâ€™s half the battle. Now you have to have elected officials overseeing those tools whoâ€™ll execute them properly.â€
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 committeeâ€™s first report of recommendations this year.
Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden said heâ€™s less concerned over national rankings than over how Idahoâ€™s laws are working for Idaho. â€œThe open meeting law ought to meet the needs of the respective states â€“ we donâ€™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,â€ he said. â€œI do think we have an affirmative open meeting law. We are working to refine it.â€
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 stateâ€™s open meeting law but concluded that while the board may have violated the law, he couldnâ€™t prove, under a recent state Supreme Court decision, that theyâ€™d â€œknowinglyâ€ done so.
â€œWeâ€™re working on some improvementsâ€ to the law, Wasden said. â€œThatâ€™s an issue that weâ€™re trying to address right now. â€¦ Weâ€™re wrestling with exactly that.â€
Jorgenson said heâ€™s also interested in legislation to improve Idahoâ€™s law. â€œI think there is too much gray area in open meetings,â€ he said.
Wasden said heâ€™s also working to promote compliance with Idahoâ€™s open government laws. â€œItâ€™s very important that government in this state operate under the statutes as theyâ€™re written, and itâ€™s important in terms of maintaining the integrity of our governmental systems and our citizensâ€™ ability to interact with their government.â€
Though Idaho was ranked low in the survey for its open meeting law, the state ranked highly for its whistleblower laws â€“ 9th in the nation â€“ 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 email@example.com
From The Spokesman-Review