Idaho ombudsman needs to take charge

Editorial from the Idaho Statesman

In Idaho and the Treasure Valley there is no shortage of public information officers, public affairs officers, communications directors and specialists.

There are more combinations of these words – and we didn’t even mention the platoons of lawyers who pore over information requests. Dozens and dozens of people throughout the state are paid millions of dollars collectively to broker and serve as information conduits to media and citizens. The proliferation of this class of public employee would lead one to expect the utmost transparency and access to public information, right?

Well, that’s not always the case, as the package of stories published Sunday by the Statesman’s Cynthia Sewell made clear. Though we all welcomed Gov. Butch Otter’s appointment of an ombudsman at the state level earlier this year – and we can note progress amid disappointments – there is room for improvement in providing access to the public and the media when it comes to getting records and information which, with few exceptions, citizens have a right to obtain on demand.

Though Idaho has a public records law, Otter’s ombudsman, Cally Younger, does not have jurisdiction or sway over all levels of government in the state.

Too often the default for the media and the public to obtain information has to pass through a tunnel of litigation or face a gantlet of gates and variable processes and costs to obtain records. That doesn’t seem to square with the transparency that all of these Idahoans running for office in November seem to embrace.

Rather than dwell on what’s wrong with the system, one set of rules and hoops should apply to all state, county, local and school district information requests – with an independent ombudsman’s office providing oversight.

How do we get there? By focusing on best practices used in certain corners of Idaho state government, and by adopting a structure similar to Utah, which follows the Government Records Access and Management Act.

The Idaho Legislature would have to give authority over all levels of government to its state ombudsman’s office. But that burden could be lessened if more Idaho agencies adopted practices already being used at places like the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality and the State Controller’s Office.

DEQ’s streamlined policies make accessing records easy. The Controller’s Office offers transparent.idaho.gov for anyone interested in information on such things as the state workforce, expenditures, the budget and other financial reports.

Other things that need fixing include uniform pricing for attaining information and adopting consistent procedures for record retention. Some agencies hold on to supporting records, such as emails, longer than others.

All new transparency initiatives must respect privacy issues. Idaho can do that while empowering an ombudsman to establish organizational norms and responsibility.

Editorial from the Idaho Statesman

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