Senate passes new open meetings rule, limiting secret sessions

From the Associated Press

Associated Press Writer

BOISE, Idaho (AP) – The Senate voted 26-8 Wednesday evening to impose strict limits on when its committees can close their meetings to the public, a move applauded by some as a sage plan even as Democrats in the chamber called for a more expansive policy that would keep all meetings open.

A single Republican _ Sen. Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow _ joined the minority Democrats to vote against the bill.

Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, and other proponents of the new rules say they strike a balance, keeping most meetings open but allowing the chamber latitude to meet behind closed doors in rare instances.

Before the changes, closed sessions could be held for any reason.

Now, executive sessions will have to be announced a day in advance, they can only occur with two-thirds member consent and the only matters that can be discussed are records exempted from public disclosure, pending litigation, personnel matters, security issues such as terrorist threats and consideration of property purchases.

“It is the narrowest policy in the history of Idaho,” Davis said before the vote.

The Senate’s move came after it won a March 20 Idaho Supreme Court ruling that open meetings provisions in the Idaho Constitution were intended to apply just to general floor sessions, but not legislative committee meetings.

That left it up to lawmakers to make their own committee rules.

The court case had been brought by the Idaho Press Club after some committee meetings were closed in 2003 and 2004. Among those were sessions during which lawmakers negotiated a landmark water rights settlement with the Nez Perce Tribe. A judge had required those water rights sessions to be confidential.

Leaders of the media group, whose members include TV, radio and print journalists, said they were satisfied with Wednesday’s changes _ especially after senators agreed not to eliminate an Idaho statute, passed in 1974 in the wake of the Watergate scandal, that said all committee meetings must be open to the public. Instead, Davis agreed to amend it so that it matches the new Senate rule allowing closed committee meetings in rare instances.

“We can live with this,” said Betsy Russell, Idaho Press Club president and a reporter at The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash. “Since our lawsuit was filed, no more closed meetings have been held. As a state, we are now far better off in ensuring openness in our legislative process than we were when we started this.”

The group has raised more than $25,000 for its lawsuit, but still faces thousands in costs.

Meanwhile, Democrats including House Minority Leader Clint Stennett, of Ketchum, and Sen. Kate Kelly, D-Boise, said the new rules fell short of complete openness.

Though Stennett wrote in a Jan. 14, 2004, letter to Davis that he agreed some circumstances might require committee meetings to be closed, the minority party has since closed ranks and favors opening all meetings.

The new rules “leave open a pretty wide door,” said Kelly. “Not that it will be abused, but that it has the potential to be abused.”

The Common Interest, a group of 850 self-proclaimed Idaho political moderates that formed in 2005, said the new rules made sense. In a poll last year, its members agreed there were reasons to close some committee meetings _ for instance, pending litigation could call for the kind of discretion afforded only by a closed session, the group members said.

But they said those instances should be clearly defined and as few as possible, said Keith Allred, the group’s president.

“I think it’s a model rule,” he said.

House lawmakers, including Majority Leader Lawerence Denny, R-Midvale, said late Wednesday they were still considering similar changes to their committee rules, though there’s some debate whether a revamp is necessary.

Denney said an existing House rule that allows committee meetings to be closed for any reason with a two-third vote of members “has served us well,” adding that some expressed concern that making changes akin to the Senate’s could cause “unnecessary problems” in the future.

From the Associated Press

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