ID attorney general says state Ed Board may have broken law

From the Associated Press

Associated Press Writer

BOISE, Idaho (AP) _ The Idaho attorney general says members of the state Board of Education may have violated the state open meeting law when they briefly discussed the possible cancellation of a test behind closed doors during a December meeting in Pocatello.

But Attorney General Lawrence Wasden says penalizing board members with a $150 fine is not an option because of the burden of proving they “knowingly” violated the law.

Wasden released the findings of his investigation Friday along with a recommendation that board members get training to better understand Idaho’s open meeting statute.

“There is a need for training and greater understanding,” Wasden told a news conference. “We need to have an understanding on how this law operates. This is a really critical matter.”

Board spokesman Mark Browning said his agency accepts the investigation’s findings and has already scheduled training for next Wednesday with staff from the attorney general’s office.

“His assertion in the report that the board may have unknowingly done something wrong, we accept those findings,” he said. “There’s always room for improvement. We welcome opportunities to undergo training and improve ourselves.”

In December, the Spokesman-Review newspaper of Spokane, Wash., filed a complaint with the attorney general alleging that the board illegally excluded the public from a Dec. 6 executive session where it discussed eliminating the ninth-grade Idaho Standards Achievement Test. Other newspapers later joined the complaint.

The Idaho Open Meeting Law requires 24-hour meeting and agenda notice be given before holding an executive session. The notice must list specific reasons for the closed meeting.

The law allows executive sessions to cover such things as hiring new employees, disciplinary action, labor negotiations and plotting legal strategy, among other things.

Knowingly violating the law carries a maximum $150 fine per person for a first offense.

The attorney general’s investigation found that the board did discuss for three to four minutes the possibility of cutting the ninth-grade statewide test. Wasden said board members believed it to be a proper discussion in the context of talks about financial constraints on hiring.

Wasden’s investigation found that the board did not deliberate or make a decision on the test during the closed meeting, but board members perceived a sense of “inevitability” that it would have to be cut.

On Dec. 10, the board’s interim executive director, Mike Rush, and Browning decided to notify school districts that the ninth-grade test would be canceled. They issued a statement that said the “board” had eliminated the test.

Wasden called the statement “inaccurate” since the board did not actually approve the cancellation of the test until a public meeting on Dec. 20.

Wasden said it’s clear the board did not make a final decision about the testing during the Dec. 6 meeting, which prevents him from levying fines against board members.

He also noted that an Idaho Supreme Court decision last year established that the use of the word “knowingly” in the statute means that officials have to be aware of the law to break it.

“Knowing really has an element of what’s in somebody’s head,” Wasden said. “That’s a fairly high standard to meet.”

Carla Savalli, a senior editor at the Spokesman-Review, told The Associated Press on Friday that she was pleased that the attorney general took the newspaper’s complaint so seriously. She said, though, that she was concerned about the issue Wasden raised about “knowing” the law.

“We feel that the law here needs to be clarified,” she said. “Ignorance is being used as an excuse for violating the law. I don’t think there’s an excuse for public officials not knowing the basic tenets of the open meetings law.”

From the Associated Press

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