Keep records public, for the benefit of the public

Editorial from The Idaho Statesman

It’s the kind of news that frightens any parent: A retired police officer, a former school resource officer, is jailed on child sexual abuse charges.

So where was Stephen R. Young working, from 1995 to 2005? On Saturday, a Boise police spokesman wouldn’t say. “The problem is, it’s a personnel issue, protected by state law,” Charles McClure said.

If that sounds wrong, that’s because it is. By Monday morning, the Boise Police Department corrected its error and released more information about Young, a 31-year department veteran who retired last month. He worked as an SRO at Boise High School and South Junior High School.

Young is charged with four counts of lewd conduct with a child under the age of 16, and police investigators say the charges have nothing to do with his on-duty work.

Regardless, parents have an absolute right to know where Young worked. This right is preserved in an Idaho public records law that operates under the presumption of openness: A document is considered public record unless the law specifically exempts its release.

Every winter, lawmakers and state agencies push for new exemptions, often to the public’s detriment. Last week, the Idaho House approved a legislative overreaction: a bill that would seal off information from fish and game licenses.

The sponsors have a legitimate concern: They don’t want activists to harass law-abiding hunters and anglers. But hunting and angling are privileges, not rights, and the state’s wildlife is a public resource belonging to us all.

There is ample reason to allow Idahoans the chance to check on whether a fellow outdoors enthusiast is playing by the rules – and to allow the news media to find out whether a political candidate or Fish and Game appointee actually is licensed to hunt or fish. All of this would be history, under a wholesale exemption now headed to the state Senate.

Fortunately, the legislative process doesn’t always work this way. Lobbyists for law enforcement and media groups have tightened – and improved – a bill to prevent the release of officers’ home addresses and phone numbers.

Sunday marks the beginning of Sunshine Week, when media organizations unite behind a common message: An open government is an accountable government. But the interpretation of sunshine laws can be as important as the law itself – as we’ve seen in the past few days.

Last week, the Idaho Transportation Department said little about suspending and firing 21 workers over the improper use of equipment. In a mammoth agency with everything from snowplows and trucks to copiers and computers, that could mean almost anything. Here, as in the case of Stephen R. Young, government should strive for transparency, instead of using “personnel matters” as a catch-all excuse for secrecy.

“Our View” is the editorial position of the Idaho Statesman. It is an unsigned opinion expressing the consensus of the Statesman’s editorial board. To comment on an editorial or suggest a topic, e-mail editorial@idahostatesman.com.

Editorial from The Idaho Statesman

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