Committee dials back public records review proposal

From the Idaho Statesman

Cities and counties continue to balk at a proposal to create a hearing commission to resolve public records disputes at the state and local level.

“It is unprecedented for this to happen. I don’t know of any other instance where a state entity would have jurisdiction, essentially almost judicial jurisdiction, over the decision of a local government entity,” said Association of Idaho Cities Director Seth Grigg during a meeting Monday to consider drafting public records review legislation. “We are very uncomfortable with this whole process.”

In Idaho, citizens are solely responsible for enforcing the state’s public records laws, which apply to local and state governments. If an agency wrongfully denies access to a public record, a citizen’s lone remedy is a lawsuit, which can be a costly and intimidating process.

Gov. Butch Otter’s recently appointed public records ombudsman, Cally Younger, is heading a committee to find an alternative way to resolve public records disputes, avoid costly lawsuits and help both the public and government employees understand and comply with state law.

The committee comprises representatives from the Idaho Association of Counties, Association of Idaho Cities, Newspaper Association of Idaho, Idaho Press Club, Associated Press and the Attorney General’s Office. The committee’s goal is to introduce legislation this session creating a statewide public records review process.

Under a proposal presented to the committee last month, a citizen could go to the public records ombudsman to challenge an agency’s decision or address other issues. The ombudsman could mediate and issue an advisory, but not binding, opinion. If either party was not satisfied with the ombudsman’s recommendation, it could appeal to a five-member hearing commission, which would make a binding decision. The hearing commission’s decision could be appealed to a judge, who would conduct an independent review.

“Putting ourselves in a position where we are subject to the decision-making authority of either a commission or an ombudsman is problematic for us,” Grigg told the committee.

He said local governments also are concerned about “having a lay commission who may or may not have adequate training in dealing with public record requests essentially overturning the action of a city or county.”

As a compromise, the committee agreed Monday to dial back the proposal by eliminating the commission and instead test-run for one year or two an ombudsman who could mediate and issue an advisory, but not binding, opinion.

Making the position temporary would give the committee time to collect information on the type of and frequency of public records disputes and then decide if the review process needs to be modified.

“I think there will be a higher level of comfort with this,” Grigg told the committee.

“I would rather have the whole hog,” said committee member and Idaho Press Club President Betsy Z. Russell. “But this is a really good first step. The biggest problem we have with this current hole in our public records law is that people have absolutely no place to turn if they can’t afford to hire an attorney and go to court. Having some place to turn would be a really good first step.”

The committee will resume discussing drafting legislation later this month.

From the Idaho Statesman

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