Wayne Hoffman: When seeking transparency is like pulling teeth

From the Idaho Statesman

Owyhee County has spent more than $162,000 on something so obviously wonderful, it just has to be kept secret from taxpayers. So the county took a black marker and diligently crossed out 56 entries on a 240-page check register provided to the Idaho Freedom Foundation. County Prosecutor Douglas Emery decided the recipients of the taxpayer dollars – of which he’s one – should remain anonymous.

The Idaho Freedom Foundation has spent months making a simple request of government agencies throughout Idaho: Send us an electronic record of your last 18 months of operating expenditures, line by line, check by check. The request to Owyhee County shouldn’t have come as a surprise; I met with the county commissioners and the county prosecutor, who doubles as the county’s legal counsel, in March to explain to them how the Idaho Freedom Foundation was working to boost the transparency of local and state government agencies, and how their spending records would be made part of a free online database.

But Owyhee County soon proved it wouldn’t do what was easily accomplished by Canyon County, Nampa, Pocatello, Boise, Ketchum, Hayden, Meridian, the Ada County Highway District, Pocatello School District, Meridian Development Corporation, College of Western Idaho, Greater Boise Auditorium District and the Boise, Coeur d’Alene and Pocatello school districts – all of whom had no problem responding to our request quickly and thoroughly.

Owyhee County initially dismissed my public records request, sent by e-mail on April 30.

“The Owyhee County departments are not to accept e-mail records requests,” Owyhee County Prosecutor Douglas D. Emery told me in an e-mail denying my e-mail request. “Owyhee County is within its right to require uniformity in the request process and that our form be used and signed.” So I took my same request, word for word, pasted it onto Owyhee County’s form, and e-mailed it back. Success.

“I will route the (request) to the necessary departments for an estimation of the total pages of copies which will need to be generated. If there is a cost anticipated, I will advise,” Emery told me.

Twenty days later, on May 30, Owyhee County’s 240-page response came in the mail, complete with a letter dated May 14 and a bill for $66.

But the pages contained blacked-out entries for more than $162,000 of non-payroll expenses. And for some of the entries, both the recipient of the money and the dollar amount were redacted. To justify his actions, Emery cited portions of the public records law that allows records to be withheld if they are of a personal nature, are medical records or are records belonging to the Idaho Housing and Finance Association. Emery declined to elaborate on his legal selections, which seem odd to me.

Fortunately, not everyone is excited about government secrets, and with a little bit of sleuthing, I was able to find out that the bulk of the secretive payments went to a consultant, likely working on the Owyhee Initiative. More than $6,000 went to Emery, when he was under contract with the county as a deputy prosecutor in 2007-2008.

What’s not clear to me are the reasons Owyhee County declared these entries secret. Emery offers few answers.

“There is no secret that I worked for the Owyhee County as a deputy prosecutor under Matt Faulks, the former (county prosecutor), at $50 per hour approximately one day per week and performed such work for a number of months,” Emery wrote in an e-mail Thursday. “My prior position with the county and rate of pay is a matter of public record and likewise published in the Owyhee Avalanche. Details of personal withholdings and personal payroll information, however, is not.”

But payments to Emery weren’t reported in the county’s accounting as payroll, which means either Emery was hired as a contractor, not an employee, or the county’s accounting system is flawed. And what of the payments to the lands consultant? Emery won’t answer.

“If you desire further records or additional followup, please complete and sign the proper written public records form and submit payment for the expenses incurred to date,” Emery wrote in his final e-mail transmission.

I suspect Owyhee County’s decision to hold these expenses secret violates Idaho’s public records law. In fairness, I can’t be entirely sure of anything because of Emery’s steadfast refusal to openly discuss the matter.

Regardless, the county’s froward response to the public’s right to know is maddening, and it illustrates how little these county officials respect the taxpayers who ultimately pay the bills and expect to know – with only extraordinary exceptions – who is getting their money and why.

Wayne Hoffman is the executive director of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit, non-partisan think tank. E-mail him at wayne@idahofreedom.net.

From the Idaho Statesman

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