Are these your public records or not?

From the Idaho Falls Post-Register

Feb 14,2007 – Marty Trillhaase – IDAHO FALLS POST REGISTER

Seventeen years ago, Idaho lawmakers adopted this simple premise: When it comes to government records, the public’s business is public. Closed records are the exception, not the rule.

In a new bill, the state Agriculture Department wants to turn that sound idea upside down. It’s focused on a couple of laboratories — one for seeds and another for animal health — which perform tests for producers. A farmer may want to know the percentage of his seed that germinates and how pure that seed is. A rancher may want to test his herd for bovine viral diarrhea. Ag’s case comes down to this: The information presents no public health threat. It’s more of a trade secret — competitors would love to know about it. And under the current law, those competitors are entitled to obtain it.

Those labs depend on producer-initiated testing for half their budgets and a good share of their work load. Testing done to enforce state agricultural regulations is a matter of public record.

So if producers seek out private testing — inevitably from out-of-state firms — the state labs would be undermined. Moreover, Ag would have a less complete picture of what’s going on in the state.

Nevertheless, these are taxpayer-funded facilities. If there’s a market for confidential testing, perhaps Idaho’s economy could develop private labs.

Ag has backed off from its initial stance — it wanted to include results from its dairy and plant pathology labs under the security blanket. And new Director Celia Gould comes to this post with a proven record of openness in government.

Still, it wasn’t that long ago that former Director Pat Takasugi had to be dragged into the Idaho Supreme Court because he sought to hide so-called “nutrient management plans” — how large feedlots plan to handle huge amounts of animal wastes — by sending them back to the feedlot owners.

Moreover, you don’t have to try very hard to find producers who complain about Ag’s testing program. So who is served by shielding Ag from public scrutiny — the producers or the agency?

Then there’s the precedent. Ag is not seeking merely the authority to deny some public records requests on the grounds of trade secrets, for instance. (That s been a common practice — lawmakers have closed 82 categories of records since 1990).

Here, Ag wants to start from the premise that all of these records are beyond the public’s grasp — unless the director decides differently. That’s a lot of discretion to put in the hands of a gubernatorial appointee.

What’s next? How long will it take for Gould’s counterparts at Health and Welfare, state prisons or the Department of Environmental Quality to seek similar authority?

Let’s not travel this path.

From the Idaho Falls Post-Register

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