Some good open government news

From the Idaho Statesman

By Kevin Richert
Idaho Statesman
03/18/2009

Not all is cloudy on the Sunshine Week front.

Earlier this week, I wrote about Idaho’s lackluster efforts in making public records available online. I researched the issue on behalf of Sunshine Week, a national organization that spotlights the value of public access to government records. Idaho wound up tied for No. 40 in a national ranking of online records access.

Now to a double serving of good news from Monday’s Senate State Affairs Committee meeting. The committee introduced a bill that would require elected officials to file financial disclosure reports, and approved a bill to put some teeth into the open meetings law.

Idaho, a state that prides itself on a citizen’s Legislature, is also one of just three states that doesn’t require lawmakers to disclose who they work for, or where they have business interests. It’s a fundamental disconnect. Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, and Senate Minority Leader Kate Kelly, D-Boise, have collaborated on a bill to fix it.

Kelly has been pushing this idea for years, but has run into resistance in the Republican-controlled Legislature. That’s why it’s encouraging to see Davis on board, along with Senate leadership from both parties. With the backing of the Senate’s most influential players, this idea has more momentum than ever.

Why, one of these days these reports might be public record, and easily accessed online. We can only hope.

Attorney General Lawrence Wasden’s office has taken the lead on the open meetings bill.

The most important part of this bill tightens up a gaping loophole in the law, as the state Supreme Court has interpreted it. An elected official now must “knowingly” violate the Open Meeting Law in order to face any civil penalties — a legal hurdle that is all but impossible to prove.

The rewrite revamps the penalties.

A first-time violation, willful or inadvertent, can result in a civil penalty of up to $50. The law now sets the fine at $150.

Repeat offenders — or any officials found to “knowingly” flout the law — can face a $500 civil penalty. The law now calls for a $300 fine for a repeat violation.

This change makes the law more enforceable, especially for first-time offenders who could now plead ignorance of the law. It encourages elected officials to understand their legal obligations to conduct the public’s business in public view. That’s in everyone’s interest.

Granted, media groups have been active on this issue. And, by way of full disclosure, I am vice president of the Idaho Press Club, one of the groups working on this bill. The club supports this rewrite.

But open government serves the citizenry, not just the media. That is the underlying message of Sunshine Week. And it’s why, for anyone who cares about transparent government, Monday was a very promising day in the Senate State Affairs Committee.

From the Idaho Statesman

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