Commissioners failed people of Garden Valley

Editorial from the Idaho Statesman

Faced with a defining decision that will reshape Garden Valley, Boise County commissioners made an abject mess of things.

They met behind closed doors without proper notice, without taking minutes — and without justification. Even their attorney, county Prosecutor Theresa Gardunia, says commissioners shouldn’t have met behind closed doors.

Minutes after the closed meeting, the commissioners approved Southfork Landing, a 606-home, 858-acre development that has divided Garden Valley’s 1,800 residents. When commissioners faced the most scrutiny — when the process mattered the most — they botched it.

They succumbed to the notion that closed doors make for good governing.

The commissioners’ July 24 closed executive session on Southfork was riddled with potential Open Meeting Law violations. Commissioners didn’t put the meeting on the agenda. They failed to provide 24 hours’ notice. They failed to have a clerk take minutes.

During the closed meeting, commissioners discussed what information to include in the public record before approving Southfork, said Gardunia, who was summoned from court to sit in on the commissioners’ meeting. Preparing a complete record is a legitimate step, she said, but something that could have been done in the open. “I think the executive session was unauthorized,” she said Thursday.

Commissioners can meet behind closed doors under select circumstances. For instance, they can discuss a probable or pending lawsuit — and given the public concern over Southfork, a lawsuit may be inevitable. But litigation never came up in the closed session, Gardunia said.

Now, each commissioner could face a $150 fine for breaking the Open Meeting Law, which may be the least of their problems. The botched meeting could provide an opening for critics who want to stop Southfork by getting a judge to nullify the vote to approve the project. The tortured process certainly casts a shadow on Southfork — a project that, by size alone, would be controversial under any circumstance.

Gardunia acknowledges the process looks bad to outsiders, and concedes the closed meeting was unjustified. She deserves credit for that. By contrast, Ada County officials have spent $17,781.25 in taxpayer money on legal fees fighting an alleged Open Meeting Law violation, dating back to June 2005.

The Boise County situation underscores the need for training. Attorney General Lawrence Wasden has toured the state teaching elected officials about how to operate under the Open Meeting Law; obviously, there is still work to do.

The cautionary tale — for part-time office-holders such as Boise County’s commissioners or full-timers like the Ada commissioners — is to work in public, rather than looking for excuses for secrecy. The excuses won’t fly with skeptical citizens — and sometimes, they violate the law.

If Boise County commissioners don’t believe that, they ought to talk to their lawyer.

Editorial from the Idaho Statesman

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