From the Coeur d’Alene Press

by Maureen Dolan

COEUR d’ALENE — Rep. Vito Barbieri didn’t want to talk about his plan to change Idaho’s public records law to shield most state lawmakers’ communications from public disclosure.

Ironically, it took a public records request for the Dalton Gardens Republican’s email messages to find out what he was thinking when he proposed this legislation.

Through that public records request, I gleaned some other interesting information showing an existing lack of transparency when it comes to state lawmakers’ email messages.

“It should be noted that the Idaho Legislature has no email retention policy and members may delete emails at any time and at their discretion, except when a public records request has been made. At that point, emails related to that public records request may not be deleted until the request is fulfilled,” wrote Terri Kondeff, Idaho Legislative Services’ chief operations officer, in a message sent with the records I requested.

Now that’s a public records policy Idaho lawmakers should be working to change.

But instead, we have House Bill 233, a measure that would alter Idaho’s Public Records Act to exempt a good chunk of legislators’ emails, text messages and other forms of correspondence from public disclosure. For example, all communications between lawmakers would be exempt.

Rep. Barbieri didn’t return phone calls or respond to email messages I sent him March 1 after he pitched the idea to the Idaho Legislature’s House State Affairs Committee.

My request for copies of email messages related to public records that were sent or received by Barbieri since Jan. 1 returned 80 pages that included 60 messages from people opposed to his bill.

A blend of unique messages and form letters, the sentiment was the same throughout the emails:

  • “The public’s business should be public, with very few exceptions. The communications of our elected officials should not be subject to special privileges that allow them to keep secrets from their constituents.”
  • “We rely on openness in government and public records to keep people informed about their government. Law making is a public business and this bill is restrictive.”
  • “The Idaho Legislature should be increasing transparency with the public rather than hiding from it.”

I received one email response sent by Rep. Barbieri to one of the constituents who contacted him with concerns.

He told the writer he realizes his bill appears to limit transparency in government, but “nothing nefarious is occurring with respect to communications between legislators.”

Rep. Barbieri argued that transparency is necessary when it comes to enforcing policy and law, but not so much for “arriving at a consensus on creating public policy.”

“Ideas are shared and discounted. Ideas are sometimes half-baked. Reaching a consensus necessarily requires brainstorming, and critical analysis of wording, and just as importantly the freedom to speak one’s mind without the concern of public disclosure of the substance of, for example, the critical analyis,” he wrote.

The making of policy, the process of drafting, discussing and finalizing it, need not be transparent, but the process of passing legislation through debate, argument and amendment should be, Barbieri wrote.

He wrote he will not be bringing the bill forward this year because the “particulars of the wording need plenty of work,” and this year’s legislative session is coming to a close.

In the meantime, perhaps we should be ready before the 2018 legislative session to submit a public records request for every email message sent or received by an Idaho lawmaker during the session, before they’re deleted.

From the Coeur d’Alene Press

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