Open-meeting bill awaits Otter’s signature

From the Twin Falls Times-News

By Jared S. Hopkins
Times-News writer

BOISE – A bill that would put teeth in Idaho’s Open Meeting Law is on its way for Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s signature, despite opposition Wednesday from a handful of House members.

Supporters say the bill, which passed 59-10, will make the law clearer for public officials to understand while strengthening the safeguards against violations. It already passed the Senate without a dissenting vote.

The revisions, the first in 17 years, were crafted by Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden and media groups.

“This legislation provides the teeth,” said Rep. Erik Simpson, R-Idaho Falls.

First adopted in 1974, the Idaho Open Meeting Law guarantees all citizens the right to observe and participate in meetings of public entities.

The bill now on its way to Otter clarifies some aspects of the law and spells out stiffer penalties, including:

  • Fines of up to $50 for governmental bodies that violate the law, regardless of intent.
  • A civil penalty of as much as $500 for public bodies that knowingly violate the law.
  • A civil penalty of as much as $500 for those who violate the law twice within 12 months.
  • The start of an executive session – a closed-door meeting – must be cited in meeting minutes. It would also require a governmental agency to list the specific reason for the closed-door meeting. Currently, agencies must only list a general description.

House members who opposed the bill said they didn’t mind a stronger open meetings law, but were concerned about a provision that allows meeting agendas to be changed during the meeting. Opposition came despite the fact that the bill would require a motion to amend the agenda, which currently is not required.

“I don’t think they ought to monkey with it after they get started. One man’s good faith is another man’s bad faith so I don’t accept that,” Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, said. “If the press wants to come to my local meeting and sit there and write and do what they want to do and if they want to follow me home and check on the color of my pajamas, I’m fine with that.”

The 35-year-old open meeting law has surfaced in recent months in the Magic Valley.

The city of Twin Falls is currently streaming all council and advisory committee meetings through its Web site, as well as increasing the number of meetings broadcast on the city’s public-access cable channel, Channel 17 on Cable One.

Meanwhile, in Burley, the Idaho Attorney General’s Office determined that the Burley council had not violated open meeting law when it awarded a bid for a sewer line. And Burley Mayor Jon Anderson has removed City Councilman Jay Lenkersdorfer from committee assignments, saying, in part, that he has violated the open meeting law by calling unannounced sub-committee meetings.

“It is good legislation,” said Rep. Stephen Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, who is a former newspaper publisher. “The Attorney General’s Office has struggled for many years to advise local agencies of government.”

From the Twin Falls Times-News

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