Editorial: Open meeting violation deserves a fine

Editorial from the Idaho Press

Although the kerfuffle over an open meetings violation at the Ada County Highway District commission has become political theater, we believe the Attorney General’s Office erred in not fining two commissioners who violated the state’s open meetings law.

As the Idaho Press has been reporting, ACHD commissioner Jim Hansen wrote an email to fellow commissioners Paul Woods and Kent Goldthorpe, laying out his conditions for publicly supporting an increase in vehicle registration fees. Goldthorpe then forwarded that email to his own personal email account and then from that account to the personal email accounts of other commission members.

The matter made its way to the Attorney General’s Office, which issued a ruling that Hansen and Goldthorpe had violated open meetings law but there was no need to “cure” the situation, other than to acknowledge the infraction at a future meeting.

The Attorney General’s Office also said Hansen and Goldthorpe did not have to pay a fine, which is laid out in the state’s open meetings law.

According to Idaho 74-208 (2) and (3), “Any member of the governing body governed by the provisions of this chapter, who conducts or participates in a meeting which violates the provisions of this act shall be subject to a civil penalty not to exceed two hundred fifty dollars ($250).

“Any member of a governing body who knowingly violates the provisions of this chapter shall be subject to a civil penalty not to exceed one thousand five hundred dollars ($1,500).”

One could argue whether Hansen and Goldthorpe knowingly violated the law.

Commission chairwoman Sara Baker said Hansen, a lawyer and former state legislator, should know better. In a strongly worded letter back to the Attorney General, she wrote that Hansen should be punished to “the fullest extent of the law.”

It’s clear that Baker has turned this into a political fracas, as evidenced by her position that Goldthorpe didn’t violate the open meetings law while seeking to hold Hansen culpable.

While we disagree with the way Baker has handled the situation, we do agree that when public officials violate the open meetings law, they should be fined.

Looking the other way sends a clear message to other public officials that it’s OK not only to skirt the law here and there, but even if you get caught, nothing’s really going to happen to you.

Instead, the Attorney General’s Office, of all places, should be sending the message that if you violate the open meetings law, you’re going to have to pay the price.

It seems odd to us that the Attorney General’s Office spends so much time holding three-hour sessions on open meetings and public records laws in coordination with Idahoans for Openness in Government all over the state every year trying to explain these laws to public officials only to dismiss a violation so cavalierly without any consequences for the violators.

We suspect the shenanigans that were going on with Hansen and Goldthorpe go on far too often among the various city councils, commissions and school boards across the state. It’s easy to go undetected because of the very secretive nature of the communications. So, for many of these council members and school board members, it’s easy to get away with it.

Fining Hansen and Goldthorpe was a missed opportunity to send a message to other elected officials that there are consequences for violating the open meetings law.

Of course, we recognize the argument of ignorance. We’re certain some of these kinds of violations happen simply because council members or school board members, many of whom are just volunteers or are paid a small amount to serve, don’t know any better. But ignorance isn’t a defense. Try telling a State Police officer that you were going 50 in a 35 mph zone because you didn’t know what the speed limit was. “Oh, I see,” says the officer. “Well, in that case, best be on your merry way.”

It would have been much better for the Attorney General’s Office to issue a $250 fine to Jim Hansen and a $250 fine to Kent Goldthorpe and use that money to start a special training fund within the Attorney General’s Office for increased training sessions for public officials on the ins and outs of Idaho’s open meetings and public records laws. They already have the blueprint for these sessions with IDOG; they just need to do more of them. Cities, counties and school districts should make these training sessions mandatory for all of their elected officials and staff members.

The law is the law, and those who violate the law should pay the price.

Editorial from the Idaho Press

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