Making Reagan proud

Editorial from the Post Register, Idaho Falls

By Corey Taule

The most interesting aspect of Sven Berg’s and Rachel Cook’s Sunday story on Idaho’s open meeting law was this notion of trust. Idahoans, we were told repeatedly, should trust that elected officials are not
making decisions behind closed doors.

No thanks. We prefer Ronald Reagan, who liked to quote a Russian proverb in situations like this: “Trust, but verify.”

That’s easy to say and difficult to pull off. Idaho’s open meeting law contains myriad exemptions. And it’s almost impossible to catch violators in the act. Unless somebody inside the illegal meeting talks, there is no way of knowing what was said.

Legislators improved the open meeting law in 2009, establishing a tiered punishment system: $50 for an initial violation and fines of up to $500 for repeat offenders.

That was a start. But more is needed. In recent years, citizens have accused a long list of governmental entities of open meeting law violations — from the city councils in Salmon and Rexburg to the Iona-Bonneville Sewer District and the State Board of Education.

Obviously, Idaho needs a greater commitment to transparent government. As problematic as the state’s open meeting law is, the open records law is even worse. No enforcement mechanism. Exemptions continually added. It’s enough to make everyday folks feel as though those in power want them on the outside looking in.

So what’s the solution?

Maybe Idaho ought to look to Washington for an answer to that question. No, not D.C. — there are no answers to be found there — but Washington state, which in 2005 established an open government ombudsman position within the attorney general’s office.

This official’s job is to address citizen concerns about openness in government. Say a local school board jumps into executive session to discuss something that appears to deserve the light of day. Patrons in Washington can turn to the ombudsman to make sure the board is acting legally.

Idaho is uniquely positioned to follow Washington’s lead. Attorney General Lawrence Wasden’s unflinching commitment to government transparency would provide the ideal setting for an official whose job it would be to make sure citizen interests are prioritized over local boards and districts. It’s a matter of finding the right person and spending the necessary money.

A Post Register editorial isn’t going to bring about this change. The press has long fought to make government more transparent with little success. It’s easy for legislators to dismiss proposals as “press
concerns.”

Reagan nailed it. Unfortunately, Idaho’s lawmakers have determined that only half of that Russian proverb applies to them. This won’t change until you demand it.

So, what will it be?

Trust?

Or trust, but verify?

C’mon folks, it’s time to make the Gipper proud.

Editorial from the Post Register, Idaho Falls

Not an IDOG member yet?