Wrangling over public records

From the Twin Falls Times-News

Feb 3,2007 – Matt Christensen – TWIN FALLS TIMES-NEWS
BOISE – A House bill regarding public records is ruffling the feathers of environmental groups, but the bill’s supporters say the hubbub is a misunderstanding over wording.

The Idaho State Department of Agriculture wants the Legislature to pass a bill that would keep its laboratories’ test results confidential. Environmentalists say the bill’s wording is unclear , and withholding information from the public is un-American.

“We had a lot of folks jump to the conclusion that the bill covers water-quality samples and things like that,” said John Chatburn, deputy administrator in the ISDA’s division of animal industries. “And it doesn’t.”

House Bill No. 59 would seal ISDA lab results from the public. The agency sends tests involving environmental issues to non-ISDA labs, and those test results, Chatburn said, would remain in the public domain.

Others aren’t sure that’s true.

The wording in the bill makes unclear exactly which lab results would be kept confidential, said Courtney Washburn, community conservation director for the Idaho Conservation League, an environmental and watchdog group. “We’re not sure what the bill would entail,” she said.

That seems to be the consensus of environmentalists statewide, including Parma resident Alma Hasse, who used lab test results to shut down a Washington County dairy last spring.

“By attempting to shield more information from the public, it seems to me that we need to look even harder at what’s going on,” said Hasse, who has accused state agencies of stonewalling public-records requests.

That’s not what this bill is about, said Chatburn. The motivation behind the bill is, in part, to protect companies from trade-secret thefts, he said.

“The bill would protect the information that comes from tests we run for companies,” he said, “when (the tests) don’t involve enforcement activities.”

The bill leaves it up to the ISDA director to determine which lab results become public, and that raises the concern of at least one legislator in the committee in which the bill was presented.

“That’s putting up a flag for everybody,” said Donna Pence, D-Gooding, who sits on the House Agricultural Affairs Committee. “I’d like to see a whole lot more information on this, because it seems to me, and a whole lot of other people, that (ISDA) just slammed the door on public records.”

The bill is yet to be placed on the committee’s calendar, but it’s likely it will be discussed in the coming weeks.

From the Twin Falls Times-News

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