Judge hears argument in Ada County public records lawsuit

From the Associated Press

By REBECCA BOONE Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — An Idaho judge says she agrees that fulfilling public records requests can put a big burden on governmental resources, but she expressed some skepticism about the number of completely redacted pages provided to four Boise-area journalists by Ada County officials this year.

Fourth District Judge Deborah Bail made the comments during a Wednesday afternoon hearing on a lawsuit between the Idaho Press Club and Ada County Commissioners.

In the lawsuit, the Idaho Press Club, Idaho Statesman reporters Cynthia Sewell and Katy Moeller, Idaho Public Television reporter Melissa Davlin and Idaho Education News editor Jennifer Swindell contend county officials repeatedly violated the state’s Public Records Act by wrongly denying access to some documents, over-redacting others and otherwise mishandling public information requests.

In court Wednesday, Ada County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney James Dickinson said the judge has all the evidence she needs to rule in favor of the county.

“In this instance, your Honor, we’ve given the court the best evidence: the actual documents,” Dickinson said. “However, there is some concern that some of the documents take a fair amount of context to determine exactly how — to realize how come they are privileged and protected. On those documents it’s very difficult because if anything is filed publicly, or I explain to the court what the basis is, that potentially obviates the protection.”

Dickinson maintained county officials followed the law when responding to the public records requests and only redacted what is necessary to protect individual’s privacy rights or other legally protected information. He said filling the requests was a drain on county resources, but that officials responded well.

The judge noted that Idaho’s “statutory preference is that the records be open.”

“Reading your briefing, there’s no question it puts a big burden on governmental resources — it’s a tight time period and it can require a great deal of effort,” she told Dickinson.

Still, Bail said, the Legislature is the entity that the county should ask to adjust those deadlines and burdens, not the courts.

She also questioned whether some of the redacted documents needed to be redacted in their entirety, or whether the county could have included a basic description or log of the types of things being redacted.

“These utterly blank documents seem to me to be pushing the envelope quite a bit,” Bail said.

Deborah Ferguson, the attorney for the Idaho Press Club, told the judge the county has a “culture of concealment of public records and not one of openness.”

Exemptions to the public records law are narrowly defined, not broad excuses to withhold information, Ferguson said.

“I think it’s useful to just take a minute or two to take a broader look at the county’s responses from 80,000 feet above,” she said. The county believes “that it’s better to be safe and deny, and if a requester sues, it’s better to let a court decide.”

She noted that Idaho’s public record law has hundreds of exemptions carved out by the Legislature, making it legal to withhold things ranging from library records to the location of archaeological digs, and even where seed crops are planted. Why would the Legislature be so specific, if it wanted agencies to just rely on a general notion of privacy, she asked.

The judge said she would consider the briefings before making a ruling sometime in the future.

From the Associated Press

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