Learning the law: Workshop provides insight to open meetings, public records

From the Coeur d’Alene Press

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden said there is one sheet of music used by every individual in the public sector as it relates to providing Idahoans with information.

At the Best Western Plus Coeur d’Alene Inn on Wednesday night, Wasden led a workshop intended to provide insight and clarity into that sheet of music – commonly known as state statute.

Wadsen and Idahoans for Openness in Government, a nonprofit coalition which promotes freedom of information, have held 32 of the seminars throughout the state since 2004. At the center of the sessions are two state laws – Idaho Open Meeting Law and Idaho Public Records Law – which directly affect information both the media and the general public can obtain from public entities.

“The great strength of our American system is public participation. The great weakness of our American system is public participation, or actually a lack thereof,” Wasden said. “So in order for us to enhance that experience of participation in government, it’s important that you understand the rules by which you access information and watch government in operation.”

Members of the public, local media and public officials composed the more than 80 people in attendance at the event, which was co-sponsored by the Coeur d’Alene Press and the Spokesman-Review.

The workshop centered around a series of skits performed by members of the media and public officials, used to illustrate various components of the two state laws. Actors in the skits played roles opposite of the ones they find themselves in professionally.

One skit, which dealt with the quorum component of open meeting law, featured three journalists playing county commissioners eating breakfast at a coffee shop. Kootenai County Commissioner Dan Green played a newspaper reporter who just happened to sit next to the group.

During the skit, the three county commissioners begin talking about implementing decisions on everything from a pesky county prosecutor to the construction of a nuclear plant next to a wildlife preserve. Green, in his role as a reporter, was noticeably excited about his good fortune while rapidly taking notes.

“Hold it! I’m blowing the whistle and throwing the flag,” Wasden finally said, bringing the skit to a close. “There’s no question about it that there was indeed illegal procedure in this one. If a governing body meets outside of a posted public meeting and conducts its business, they can each face a penalty that they have to pay out of their own pocket.”

After the skit, Idaho Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane gave an overview of the state’s open meeting laws. He called the statute one of the most important laws in the state and said it applies to the majority of governing bodies at every level.

“Government is a trusteeship,” Kane said. “We trust the government to make decisions with our best interests in mind. Open meeting law is your (the public’s) ticket to watch the show. The whole point of it is for citizens to be able to watch their government in action.”

In the first of three skits on public records law, Spokesman-Review reporter Scott Maben played the role of a county commissioner trying to get a county prosecutor, played by Coeur d’Alene Press reporter Devin Heilman, to limit the release of inter-office emails to a local newspaper.

During the skit, Maben argued that the emails, which contained threats to public employees if they spoke to the local paper, were personnel matters and shouldn’t be released. Heilman patiently tried to explain why those emails were in fact public record and had to be released under state law.

“Just calling a record a personnel record doesn’t make it one,” Wasden said after the skit concluded. “A personnel record is only information you would find in an employee’s file.”

For more information on Idaho’s Public Records and Open Meeting Laws, visit the Attorney General’s Office website at www.ag.idaho.gov.

From the Coeur d’Alene Press

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