Get to know Idaho’s open meetings law

From the Coeur d’Alene Press

If they’re making a decision, make yourself at home.

If they’re holding deliberations, pull up a chair.

But if a government entity is discussing personnel issues, say, hiring an employee or disciplining an officer, the door will be shut to civilians.

No use complaining. It’s the law.

The open meetings law, specifically.

And it’s there for a reason, explained Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden on Tuesday night.

“(The law) has helped us gain timely access to information,” he said, speaking to a crowd of citizens, reporters and government employees at the Spokesman Review building. “And it’s also protected information that the law ensures be restricted, like the investigative efforts of law enforcement.”

Idaho’s open meeting and public records laws might seem like dry subjects. But if anyone wants to hear a highway district deliberate on a tax increase, or wants a copy of an email between school board members, the information is useful.

That’s why the attorney general, with Idahoans for Openness in Government, held a seminar on the restrictions and allowances of the two recently updated laws on Tuesday.

“Everybody, even if you sing out of tune, you’ll recognize there’s a sheet of music,” Wasden said at the event, co-sponsored by the Coeur d’Alene Press and the Spokesman Review.

The state’s open meeting law, Wasden said, ensures that almost every discussion and decision by a governing agency is open to public viewing.

Officials discussing policy privately at a restaurant, for instance, is illegal.

“You’ve been trusted with the public’s right to watch you conduct your business,” he said.

Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane spelled out the rules: An agency must provide notice of a meeting five calendar days ahead, and notice of the agenda 48 hours ahead.

Policy making outside of a noticed meeting is null and void, he said.

The law allows folks to observe, he added, but not participate.

“If you want to give (government officials) a piece of your mind, make an appointment to meet with them,” Kane advised.

Meetings for executive sessions, where members of the public may be excluded, must be specified on an agenda 24 hours ahead, he noted.

Decisions can’t be made in executive sessions, Kane said. Discussions are limited to a very narrow scope of subjects, like personnel and litigation.

“(Governments’) approach to executive sessions should be they’re the exception, not the rule,” he said. “If you can’t do anything without going into executive session, you’ve got a problem.”

Members of the public can record meetings, he said, so long as it doesn’t hamper the process.

For more about Idaho’s open meeting law, go to

Complaints about violations at the local government level should be taken to the prosecuting attorney, Kane said.

Violations by state agencies should be reported to the attorney general’s office.

Kane noted that though officials can be charged up to $500 for knowingly violating the open meeting law, they can avoid fees by admitting error and holding a meeting again properly.

“My advice is, it’s OK to make a mistake. Just own it and fix it quickly,” Kane said. “It’s a lot easier than the road of denial.”

As for Idaho’s open records law, Wasden said, the custodian of a government document can’t deny a record request or question its intent, unless about it being used as a mailing list.

“A public record is a public record,” Wasden said, adding that there are some exemptions like personnel and litigation documents.

Accessible records include handwritten and typewritten documents, photographs, photostats, emails, phone texts and Facebook pages, property tax records and government credit cards.

“If you’re spending public dollars, the public has a right to see what’s going on,” Wasden said.

Kane noted that an agency can grant or deny a records request within three working days, or within 10 working days if more time is needed.

Under the new statute, the first two hours of labor for obtaining a record, or the first 100 pages, are free.

Wasden had simple advice for government employees about not leaking embarrassing intel.

“Listen to your mother, ‘If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all,'” he said. “And finally, listen to Mark Twain: ‘Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.'”

From the Coeur d’Alene Press

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