Moscow workshop: ‘It’s the public’s business’

Moscow, Idaho’s historic, wood-paneled City Council chambers was the scene of some hilarity on Tuesday night, Dec. 9, 2014, as City Councilman Walter Steed played the part of a lucky reporter overhearing his local county commissioners illegally conducting public business over breakfast at a local café – while Latah County Prosecutor Bill Thompson played the county commission chairman, throwing in some zingers at Steed while he was at it. The skit was part of a workshop on Idaho’s open meeting and public records laws that drew nearly 30 people, ranging from local elected officials to reporters, records clerks, lawyers, civic volunteers and interested citizens.

In the skit, the fictional county commissioners ended up with $500 apiece fines for knowingly violating the Idaho Open meeting Law. “An important note with the penalties,” Deputy Idaho Attorney General Brian Kane told the crowd, “Those are to you as a person, meaning that your government entity doesn’t pick up the tab for you violating the open meeting law.”

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden was the lead presenter at the workshop, sponsored by Idahoans for Openness in Government and co-sponsored by the Moscow-Pullman Daily News. Wasden said all sides need to understand what the rules are. Lee Rozen, Daily News managing editor, said, “These laws are often misunderstood in the details and in the intent – either by the public, by the press, by government staff and by elected officials.” That’s why all those groups are invited to the IDOG sessions.

Moscow’s session was the 31st that IDOG and Wasden have presented around the state since 2004, visiting all parts of the state on a three-year cycle; the sessions last came to North Idaho in 2011.

Attendees in Moscow gave the session high marks. “Should have done this 12 years ago,” commented an elected official. “Good material.”

“Thanks for doing this,” wrote a member of a state commission. She said she learned something she’ll put to use right away: “How to handle executive sessions.”

A government employee said he came away with a “much better sense of what I need to pay attention to in my job.”

A local attorney offered this as the takeaway: “Proceed cautiously – serve the public.” Wrote another attendee, “As a newly elected legislator, a great overview of the process as well as explanation of the history and background for the open meeting and public records laws.”

Wrote a reporter: “It is the public’s business.”

The IDOG sessions are funded in part by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation through the National Freedom of Information Coalition.

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