Open public records key to limiting government

Editorial from The Spokesman-Review

Idaho typically elects conservative officeholders with skeptical views of government and then allows them to lower the blinds on public information.

One would think voters would want the government closest to them to be the most open, but that’s not how it works in the Gem State.

Last spring, Gov. Butch Otter named an ombudsman for public records so more transparency and accountability would be brought into the process. After four months on the job, Cally Younger has some ideas for improvement, but she will need the Legislature’s help with statutory changes. It would help if the public pushed for reforms, too.

The Idaho Statesman published a package of articles last Sunday in which Younger discusses what she’s learned and what actions might be needed.

For starters, her office needs a broader mandate and an enforcement mechanism. She has jurisdiction over state agencies only, which puts school boards, law enforcement agencies, city councils, county commissions and other local entities out of reach. Plus, enforcement of the state’s public records law is weak. Neither the attorney general’s office nor the ombudsman can compel compliance. It is solely up to citizens to make sure agencies are following the law, and that means hiring legal counsel and taking the matter to court – a step many people can’t afford.

Other states offer less onerous avenues of dispute resolution. Utah has an admirable setup: a public records commission made up of people from the public and private sectors. It settles disagreements and can enforce its findings.

Although imperfectly realized, a voter-approved initiative in Washington public records law states the goal nicely: “The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created.”

But keeping tabs on Idaho agencies can be a chore because of the welter of exemptions and inconsistent policies. The state tells local governments what records they must retain and for how long, but the law doesn’t do the same for state agencies. For instance, the governor’s office lets each employee decide how long to keep emails, while the Department of Correction has a blanket six-month rule. So a request that involves both agencies is up against different rules.

To say the least, this isn’t customer-friendly. It certainly violates the spirit of open government.

Younger says she is surveying agencies to pinpoint irregularities so she can formulate reforms to take to the Legislature. Otter deserves credit for creating a position that embraces the perspective of record requesters, but the state has a long way to go.

Lawmakers can show they embrace open government by giving the ombudsman leverage over all public institutions – not just the state-level ones – and a way to compel compliance. This will give the office the stature it needs to push for other needed changes.

Conservative lawmakers say government can’t be trusted. Let’s see if they help raise the blinds.

Editorial from The Spokesman-Review

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