Newspaper sues Jefferson County over open meeting law violation

From the Post Register, Idaho Falls

By Jeff Robinson

The Post Co. sued the Jefferson County Board of Commissioners on Friday, contending that commissioners are in violation of Idaho’s Open Meeting Law.

The lawsuit, filed in 7th District Court, follows a Dec. 3 letter to the commission from attorney Steve Wright. Wright’s letter on behalf of the Post Co. requested commissioners “take the appropriate remedial steps” to cure violations of the Open Meeting Law that reportedly took place Nov. 14.

The commissioners did not respond to the Post Co.’s letter and Friday was the last day under Idaho law the Post Co. could file “an action in state court to correct this impropriety,” the Dec. 3 letter said.

The Post Co. owns The Jefferson Star and Post Register.

Wright said Friday he was “surprised” that he’d heard “nothing whatsoever” from the commissioners in response to the letter. He said he expects to serve the commissioners with the complaint next week. He also is forwarding the complaint to the Idaho Attorney General’s Office for review.

Jefferson County Commissioner Brian Farnsworth, named as a defendant in the suit along with fellow commissioners Tad Hegsted and Jerald Raymond, said he was made aware of the lawsuit Friday.

“I don’t think I can comment right now,” he said. “We’ll just have to wait and see how it plays out.”

Wright, in the letter, said commissioners violated Idaho’s Open Meeting Law by reaching an agreement with Prosecuting Attorney Robin Dunn in executive session.

Specifically, Wright contends, the commission violated the law by:

Posting an improper agenda.

Making a final decision in executive session.

Failing to keep accurate minutes of the executive session.

The issues arose following a two-hour executive session Nov. 14, after which a news release announced the commission had met with Dunn and “requested and (Dunn) has agreed to reimburse Jefferson County all payments made by Jefferson County in the handling of Eagle Rock v. Jefferson County in Federal Court.”

Dunn is scheduled to repay Jefferson County $17,877.40 in legal fees.

As previously reported, Dunn told the commission he couldn’t represent the county in federal court while acting as prosecuting attorney but could do so if the county paid him as a private attorney. An Idaho attorney general’s opinion, issued Oct. 31, said “a county prosecutor does have the authority to represent his or her county in civil matters in any court, including federal court.”

The Jefferson Star reported last week that U.S. District Judge Edward J. Lodge ruled the dumping fee schedule enacted by Jefferson County commissioners in 2011, which was at the root of the Eagle Rock v. Jefferson County lawsuit, is unconstitutional.

The Post Co. demands “actions taken in or as a result of commissioner meetings” Oct. 28 and Nov. 14 “be null and void” and that the board of commissioners be ordered to comply with the law. The Post Co. also wants the commission ordered to pay its attorney fees and costs “in the minimum sum of $3,000.”

The lawsuit marks the second time in a year that the Post Co. has sued a public board for violations of state open meetings or public records laws.

In December 2012, the Post Register sued Blackfoot School District 55 to release documents about a secret $210,856 contract payment to former Superintendent Scott Crane. In that case, the school board chairman apologized for the Open Meeting Law breach and the district voided the agreement to “cure” the violation. But the district later reaffirmed and upheld a separation agreement and payout using a loophole in the law that the violation wasn’t caught soon enough.

“The loophole appears to be, even if you breach the open meeting act — which automatically voids all actions — if no one catches you in 30 days (the action) really wasn’t void after all,” Wright said at the time.

The district reimbursed the Post Register for its legal fees in that case.

From the Post Register, Idaho Falls

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