Standing-room only for Sandpoint open government workshop

It was standing-room only in Sandpoint as 75-plus people filled the Sandpoint Library’s community room for a workshop on Idaho’s open meeting and public records laws on Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014 – a record turnout for Sandpoint, which had half as big a crowd the last time IDOG’s open government sessions came to town in 2011.

“In the simplest terms, the open meeting law is your ticket to the show, and the show is government,” Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane told the crowd. “When in doubt, open it up.”

Those attending ranged from the county sheriff to local elected officials to government employees, reporters, a newly elected state lawmaker and lots of interested citizens. However, the Bonner County Daily Bee, which co-sponsored the session, pointed out in the next day’s paper that Sandpoint city officials skipped the workshop – and held a controversial, closed-to-the-public meeting about oil and coal train traffic in the region the same afternoon.

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, the lead presenter at the workshop, said, “It’s important that we have an understanding about how to access information in our government. It’s really important, and the reason for that is the greatest strength in our system is public involvement. … Our system works because people can have access to information.”

New Daily Bee publisher Jim McKiernan welcomed the crowd, and members of the audience participated in a series of humorous skits as they learned about the provisions and requirements of the Idaho Open Meeting Law and the Idaho Public Records Act. Attendees also left with handouts including the Attorney General’s manuals on both laws.

“I picked up several things I didn’t know,” wrote local writer Bob Wynhausen in his evaluation of the event. An official from the city of Priest River wrote that he planned to immediately put to use the information he learned about rules for executive sessions.

“It was a great refresher on all public meeting laws,” wrote another attendee. A fire district commissioner also called the session a “great refresher,” and said his district will work on “more properly prepared agendas.”

A citizen wrote that she learned “too much to list!” Wrote an elected official, “The manuals are very helpful.”

A county employee wrote, “I am a records clerk, so I can use this information on a daily basis.”

Kane explained that whether or not something is a public record doesn’t depend on where or how it’s created or transmitted – it depends on the content. “The question is what does it contain. If it contains the public’s business, that’s public,” he said.

That’s even if public officials have used their own phones, computers or private email accounts to send the messages, texts or other items – if the message is about conducting the public’s business, it’s a public record, and any member of the public is entitled to request access to it.

The public records law’s definitions are broad: A “writing” is defined as not just written material, but includes “any means of recording,” so it takes in videos, texts, audio recordings and more. A “public record” is then defined as: “Any writing containing information relating to the conduct or administration of the public’s business.”

Exemptions from disclosure, on the other hand, are required to be narrowly construed, and limited to specific circumstances.

Under the law, if a requester is wrongly denied a public record, the sole remedy is to bring suit in court. There, the burden is on the government to prove that an exemption applies.

The law requires a response to a public records request within three days, but Kane said, “My best legal advice is to get them out as quickly as possible – just because you have three days, you don’t have to take three days.”

If the records will take longer to gather or redact, an agency can notify the requester it will take up to 10 days, but Kane cautioned that’s not 10 days to think about whether or not to release the record. That decision should be made within three days.

The Sandpoint session was the 33rd open government seminar IDOG has held around Idaho since 2004; the project is funded in part by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation through the National Freedom of Information Coalition.

Not an IDOG member yet?