OpenCDA

February 28, 2009

When Did They Plan to Tell Us?

Filed under: Probable Cause — Bill @ 3:25 pm

hyenasThe February 27, 2009, Idaho Business Review  reported the Idaho Attorney General’s Office is asking the Senate State Affairs Committee to revise Idaho’s Open Meetings Law.  The IBR article was written by Brad Carlson and headlined Idaho Senate panel mulls Open Meetings Law revision.

Carlson’s IBR article says, “The proposed changes to the Open Meetings Law reflect input from attorneys, news organizations and public agency officials.”  That’s an interesting lineup of players.  A little more identification would have been helpful.

We have learned those invited to draft the not-yet-made-public revisions may include Deputy Attorney General Bill von Tagen, representatives from the Association of Idaho Cities (scroll down to “Open Meeting Law Bill Introduced in House” heading), the Idaho Association of Counties, ICRMP, the Idaho School Boards Association, and Spokesman-Review reporter Betsy Russell representing  whom?  Her Spokane-based newspaper?  The Idaho Press ClubIdahoans for Openness in Government?

Upon learning of the proposed revision, I spoke with  former State Representative Gary Ingram, an occasional commenter on OpenCdA.com and also the author of Idaho’s original open meeting law.   He had not been invited to join the group weighted toward eviscerating the accountability and enforcement provisions of the Open Meeting Law.

Gary has often said, “The Open Meeting Law is all about public access to formation of public policy, not convenience for the governing body.”  Then why did drafts amend the law to allow the governing body to change the agenda during the meeting?   It is the published agenda that gives citizens sufficient time to prepare for meaningful participation.    It is the published agenda that helps news and assignment editors determine if  reporters will get anything newsworthy by attending a meeting.    Both the public and the press depend on timely, reliable agendas.  (Note:  We have been told this agenda change during the meeting provision may now have been removed.  We’ll see.)

The IBR story reports that, “Non-public executive sessions are the most problematic aspect of the law.”  No kidding!  The old law imposes no requirement for the keeping of detailed minutes of the meetings held behind closed doors and out of the public view.  Gary Ingram’s suggestion to require governing bodies to make sealed recordings of  all executive sessions, subject to in camera judicial review in a court proceeding, was rejected.  Why?  Too much chance of the public really finding out some public officials hide the dirty linen and covert deals in executive sessions?  We’ll have to see what the new and improved proposal does to remedy that.  (Don’t hold your breath.)

We understand that the officially invited participants to the feeding frenzy want to allow violators to “cure” their actions if they get caught.  In other words, if they’re caught violating the law, they would have 14 days to simply declare all actions at an illegal meeting to be null and void.  Then they could vote publicly to do what they sought to hide from the public.  Here’s the kicker:  If they’re caught and take the “cure,” they would suffer no penalty!    Only if a victim-citizen can prove they “knowingly” violated the law could the accused receive a civil penalty up to $500.

I strongly disagree with The Spokesman-Review allowing reporter Betsy Russell to be involved in this rewriting of the law.   I don’t disagree with the organizations she represents (The Spokesman-Review newspaper, the Idaho Press Club, and Idahoans for Openness in Government) having representation.  Their involvement may help protect the public’s interest.  But those organizations all have employees and members (e.g., attorneys) who could represent their interests without compromising  journalistic integrity.  A  reporter is supposed to be reporting the news, not helping make it.   For Russell to be involved in rewriting a law which may ultimately reduce rather than enhance the public’s access to the formation of public policy will damage The Spokesman-Review‘s  credibility.

Read The Spokesman-Review value statement.  Pay special attention to the second value which reads, “We will tell the people what we know when we know it, without fear or favor.”

Really?  When did the newspaper whose Boise reporter has been helping rewrite the law intend to tell the people about the formation of the revisionist group?   Did The Spokesman-Review’s editors not think the public needs to know, now!, that the Idaho Attorney General and several lobbying groups are working to revise one of the few tools the public has to know about proposed changes to public policy?  How did sitting on this story, “…empower citizens so they can exercise their citizenship” better?

Once the legislation has been introduced, citizens will be able to read it and follow its progress on the Idaho Legislature website.    OpenCdA.com will post a link to the specific legislation when it is available.

But you don’t have to wait.  If you have concerns and constructive suggestions, send them to the Idaho Attorney General’s office now.   You can be assured that local governments and others seeking to weaken the law have been feeding information via their lobbyists already.

10 Comments

  1. Of course, this wouldn’t be an issue if we elected people who were more interested in serving their community than promoting themselves and the old boys network.

    Comment by Dan — February 28, 2009 @ 3:42 pm

  2. If, as von Tagen said in the article, most violations occur as a result of an unintentional mistake, then there would be no need to rewrite the law. For several years Attorney General Wasden has published an oustanding guide, the Idaho Open Meeting Law Manual. It is readily understandable and regularly updated. In addition, in February 2008 the Attorney General sent instructional DVDs out to government agencies and schools. Idaho Public Television has on its website video skits made in cooperation with the Attorney General’s office to inform anyone interested about the Open Meeting Law and Public Records Law.

    The resources have been there so public officials could inform themselves. No one expects the AG or the county prosecutors to prosecute offenders who unintentionally violate a fine point of law. But I suspect that elsewhere, as in Coeur d’Alene, there are public officials who are “knowingly” and intentionally violating the Open Meeting Law, because they know they will not likely be caught and prosecuted. To believe otherwise is to believe that our City Council did not know that voting over the telephone during an unscheduled, unannounced meeting is illegal!

    Comment by Bill — February 28, 2009 @ 4:00 pm

  3. i bet the lcdc lobbyist weighed in with ideas. maybe let meetings be held in private homes without notce? maybe authority to toss out nosy journalists? what next, revise the ethics code to allow ‘innocent’ conflicts of interest?

    Comment by TheWiz — February 28, 2009 @ 4:41 pm

  4. Betsy is on the Media/Courts Judicial Committee.

    Here they are.

    I often wondered why Betsy was on a the media commmitee just like some various folks on other certain committees. For instance, the Families in the Courts committee wrote a rule that was adopted by the Supreme Court and now it’s gospel. The chair to that committee is a local judge and he is married to a psychologist who was appointed to the Wellness Committee and works in the family courts. That is one rule I wish I had the opportunity to be part of – it stinks and appears, at least to me, to pardon and make it easier for the courts to circumvent actual law. It ignores Idaho Court Rules of Evidence – if they can get a signature or verbal recording from an unbeknowing victim who doesn’t know the law. It’s horrible. That did not even have to go to the legislature.

    I have called Betsy in the past and she is very receptive about her involvement on these committees. Call her and talk to her, I am sure she would let you know what is going on and listen to your concerns, and tell her you want cameras (sealed film) in executive sessions. That is brilliant. I will call too.

    Comment by Stebbijo — February 28, 2009 @ 4:59 pm

  5. The proposed language to allow changes to the Agenda during the meeting is terrible! How can citizens have any confidence they will have a chance to testify on important matters if officials can add items to the Agenda whenever they want. Remember when Mayor Bloem quickly “added” the vote on $3 million for the Kroc Center to the city council’s agenda about 20 minutes before the meeting? No one from the public was there to testify against the deal. That was horrible. Do we really want to make this kind of irresponsible behavior legal?

    Comment by mary — February 28, 2009 @ 5:09 pm

  6. Mary,

    That may very well be changed. Again, this still has to get introduced and then through the legislature. It’s rare that we have any knowledge about the deals being cut behind closed doors, deals that result in legislation. Once it hits the legislature, if it makes it into the draft legislation, we can urge our legislators to nix the “change during meeting” provision.

    What blows me away is that competent journalists like Russell and her Spokane handlers didn’t catch that provision and raise the roof about it. Lack of timely access to accurate agendas directly affects their ability to do their jobs and fulfill their supposed journalistic obligation to their readers. Why they would consider that acceptable in any way is a mystery.

    But as I said, that provision may get changed before it is ever introduced, let alone passed.

    Comment by Bill — February 28, 2009 @ 7:13 pm

  7. Stebbijo,

    I don’t believe it is the Idaho Supreme Court’s Media/Courts Committee rewriting the legislation. That committee is chaired by the Chief Justice of the Idaho Supreme Court. Call me stupid (as many do, correctly), but I believe that having the Chief Justice involved in rewriting Idaho legislation might violate Article II, Section 1, of the Idaho Constitution.

    I’m pretty certain that Russell will not be writing any news articles about the work of this committee, not because she’s trying to hide anything but because she could not possibly have the requisite journalistic objectivity in her writing. That’s why media representatives on this particular project should not be working journalists. I do think it would be neat for journalists to be sitting in the meetings as journalists and writing legitimate news stories about how the law is being rewritten and who’s representing whom in the zoo.

    Comment by Bill — March 1, 2009 @ 7:18 am

  8. I absolutely agree with you 100% – but I have no power. I am trying get it straight as well and it just doesn’t add up. I have talked with a few senators about what appears to be a conflicts in relationships – in my opinion – on these committees and the answers are always glib. “Idaho is small.” “So what, they are on a committee.”

    So many are attorneys and that does not necessarily give them the insight to draft something for the general public – in fact it makes it worse. If they are a senator then they essestially represent us? I want to see a broader representation of the people on these committees if they are going to pick and choose people from the general public and Betsy is from the general public who lives in the state of Washington?

    I have not done the research but I have heard that Idaho is one of the only states that does it this way – through the judicial committees.

    Comment by Stebbijo — March 1, 2009 @ 8:56 am

  9. Just another way to remove the public from the process of out government. They are just following Washington D.C.s lead.
    What happened to government of, for and by the people.
    Can some one provide an email link to the attorney general for public comments?

    Comment by citizen — March 7, 2009 @ 8:05 am

  10. citizen,

    You can follow this link to the Attorney General’s website, then click on the “Contact Us” button in the upper right corner.

    Comment by Bill — March 7, 2009 @ 8:37 am

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