Attorney General Wasden hits the road to advance transparency

From the Idaho Statesman

Idaho got a shout-out Thursday at a meeting of the nation’s attorneys general about a cooperative effort to make government more accessible and accountable.

Attorney General Lawrence Wasden touted the efforts of IDOG — Idahoans for Openness in Government — as a model for transparency.

“One of the great strengths of our political system is that people are involved,” Wasden said Thursday after his talk on open records and open meetings. “But the only way it is meaningful is if they have an understanding of how their government operates. They have to have access to this information and they have to be able to be at these meetings.”

It’s one thing to advise colleagues in National Association of Attorneys General in balmy Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

It’s quite another to commit to helping IDOG put on annual seminars, which Wasden has done since IDOG’s founding in 2004.

On Thursday, Wasden will be here at the Idaho Statesman from 6:30 to 9 p.m., schooling reporters, public officials and ordinary citizens about the public’s rights. Two more meetings follow, Dec. 12 in Payette and Jan. 9 in Nampa.

Wasden is Idaho’s longest-serving attorney general, at 10 years. He says he plans to run for a fourth four-year term in 2014, though the ember of his boyhood dream to represent Idaho in the U.S. Senate still burns.

“If the opportunity availed itself, I would be very interested,” Wasden said. “And I’m not going to cut out anything else, either. I don’t know where we’re going to end up down the road.”

Partnering with the Idaho Press Club, the Association of Idaho Cities and Idaho Association of Counties doesn’t hurt Wasden’s prospects. After squeaking by in a four-way GOP primary by 2,000 votes in 2002, Wasden has had an easier time. He won the 2002 general election with 58 percent of the vote; carried 62 percent in 2006; and was unopposed in 2010.

Having covered Wasden since his time as chief of staff to Attorney General Al Lance, I think it’s fair to say he’s not just cozying up to the media and local officials.

He takes seriously his duty to be the people’s lawyer. That’s meant prosecuting errant public officials, pressing for release of records, tangling with an ex-governor over toughening campaign finance disclosures, and fighting his GOP colleagues to boost income from state endowments.

An English minor in college, he says his favorite American novels are “Grapes of Wrath” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“There is a connection,” Wasden said. “They bring to the forefront the common man, what government is supposed to do and how we’re supposed to interact. It’s incumbent on leaders to see that that happens.”

For Wasden, educating local officials, reporters and the public is a core duty.

“To be honest, sometimes local officials just didn’t want to release the records,” Wasden said. “We had to improve their knowledge level.”

Meanwhile, reporters can be too aggressive and confuse records laws in other states or the federal Freedom of Information Act with Idaho law.

“What we tell reporters is if you just talk to people, they’ll give you the stuff,” Wasden said. “With the local officials, we say this is public, you oughta give it to them. And with the public, we’re saying that sometimes what you think the law says isn’t necessarily so.”

Explaining the limits of the laws is a big part of the seminars, coupled with Wasden’s print and online publication of open meeting and public records manuals.

“There is a sheet of music from which we all have to sing,” Wasden said. “We get the press and local government and the public at large together in one room and we get one answer to the question.”

From the Idaho Statesman

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