Governor signs open meeting law reforms

BOISE – Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has signed into law legislation revamping and strengthening Idaho’s Open Meeting Law.

The bill, SB 1142, sponsored by Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, passed the Senate unanimously and the House on a 59-10 vote. It was endorsed by an array of media, civic and local government groups, including IDOG.

Work on the bill began after an Idaho Supreme Court decision in 2007 made parts of the law near-impossible to enforce. The bill restores the law’s enforceability, eliminates incentives for ignorance of the law created by the Supreme Court decision, and replaces them with incentives for compliance. It also narrows the scope of several of the law’s exemptions, sets new fines, and makes other changes.

The court decision, State of Idaho vs. Yzaguirre, gave a new interpretation to the word “knowingly” in the existing law, essentially holding that if a public official didn’t know about or misunderstood the Idaho open meeting law, he or she couldn’t “knowingly” violate it. This interpretation came into play when an open meeting complaint was filed against the state Board of Education in 2008, and Wasden, after an extensive investigation, concluded that while the board may have violated the law, he couldn’t prove that they’d done so “knowingly.”

While many states have “knowingly” language in their Open Meeting Laws, in most cases it is a trigger for more severe penalties than simple violations that don’t carry that modifer. Florida’s law, for example, has a two-tiered approach in which violations are punishable by fines of up to $500, but knowing violations are subject to misdemeanor criminal penalties.

Idaho already had a two-tiered system for violations; in the current law, first-time violations are punishable by a fine of up to $150, while repeat violations are subject to a fine of up to $300. SB 1142 sets out a new two-tiered violation system, to allow all violations to be sanctioned, but to set a very low civil fine of up to $50 for the first-time or simple violation. The more egregious, intentional or repeated violations would bring civil fines of up to $500.

You can read the full bill here: http://www.legislature.idaho.gov/legislation/2009/S1142.htm

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