Public officials need to respect Idaho’s Open Meeting Law

Editorial from The Idaho Statesman, Sept. 30, 2005

Way to go, Lawrence Wasden.

The attorney general stood up for the Open Meeting Law � and sent a message to politicians statewide � when he accused Ada County commissioners of holding an illegal closed meeting.

The commissioners made the A.G.�s job easy. Their June 15 meeting was a blatant violation of the state law designed to ensure public officials do the public�s work in public. Still, Deputy Attorney General William von Tagen�s civil complaint, released Wednesday, is on target:

* He rejects the notion that commissioners needed to meet in private to discuss legal issues surrounding a proposed eastern Foothills subdivision. State law allows closed �executive sessions� to discuss pending or probable lawsuits. But as von Tagen notes, commissioners didn�t even have their lawyer in the meeting. �In no way was the commission receiving or exchanging information with its legal counsel.�

* Von Tagen criticizes the commissioners and their staff for failing to take minutes at the meeting. State law requires minutes even for executive sessions. Meeting notes don�t even say which commissioner suggested closing the meeting, or how commissioners voted on the idea.

Von Tagen�s complaint should be required reading for all elected officials. The complaint offers a stern reminder about working in the open � and following the rules on the rare occasion when a secret meeting is justified.

We hope Vern Bisterfeldt gets this message. Bisterfeldt, who worked a dozen years as a county commissioner and was elected to the Boise City Council in 2001, attended the June 15 meeting. He, like the commissioners, should have known better.

We hope the message hits home with the city and county officials who considered meeting last week at the members-only Arid Club to discuss building a taxpayer-funded detox center. The meeting was hastily called off when reporters and citizen watchdogs showed up � a public-relations black eye that just might have kept local leaders on the right side of the law.

The case of the June 15 meeting also offers a lesson in the power of citizen vigilance. Wasden got involved in response to a complaint from Tony Jones, an opponent of the Foothills subdivision proposal. By speaking up, Jones demonstrated that the Open Meeting Law is not just the news media�s law, but the people�s law.

Commissioners will make the next move. They can pay their fine � $150 apiece � or take the case to a judge. Considering that both Bisterfeldt and Commissioner Rick Yzaguirre have said the meeting covered topics that could have been discussed in open session, the commissioners ought to just cough up the money. They can chalk it up as tuition for a remedial lesson in Open Meeting Law.

Editorial from The Idaho Statesman, Sept. 30, 2005

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