Idaho cities, counties score win for government secrecy

Editorial from the Twin Falls Times-News

Idaho’s public records laws are an unenforceable mess. And local governments apparently want to keep it that way.

Costly lawsuits are the only recourse for an aggrieved citizen denied documents under the state’s public records laws. And the Association of Idaho Cities and the Idaho Association of Counties, intent on protecting good-old-boy politics, this month yanked the teeth from a proposal to fix it. A much-needed commission, with the authority to override a local government’s denial of a records request, is officially dead thanks to the organizations’ commitment to a busted status quo.

Local governments and school boards, particularly in small towns, have a terrible track record. And why wouldn’t they? It’s safer to wager against a lawsuit – often avoiding small-town public humiliation – than to do the right thing and throw open the vaults. The Times-News had to file a lawsuit last year before Gooding School District officials would release obviously public documents. Forcing the citizen to enforce the law is backward.

Put simply, the way it’s done now is broken. Public records laws, without providing reasonable recourse, are counterproductive. Idaho touts a system that encourages obfuscation and secrecy, while discouraging the one tenet that makes any government worthy of trust. Small-town politics breed small-town corruption.

A stakeholder committee, convened by Gov. Butch Otter’s administration, offered legitimate reform. A state grievance board, empowered to decide on public records denials, would be assembled. It would offer citizens and media alike an alternative to expensive lawsuits.

More importantly, it would put local governments, too often concerned with covering for themselves, on notice. Public records abuses finally would have consequences, including a smattering of public embarrassment.

But the thought of accountability terrifies the Association of Idaho Cities and the Idaho Association of Counties.

“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 Seth Grigg, director of the cities association. “We are very uncomfortable with this whole process.”

The shrill complaint begs the question: What is Mr. Grigg so afraid of?

Grigg is wrong, and his fears of a “lay commission” flinging half-baked opinions are meant only to hijack the debate. Surely, any commission would include an attorney or two. The state Attorney General’s Office has a few.

States across the country have boards that oversee the ethics, budgets and operations of local government. Applying this basic principle of good government to public records is an obvious fix.

Transparency isn’t an unfunded mandate, Mr. Grigg. It’s the duty of all elected officials and bureaucrats. Unfortunately, that’s obviously not the top priority for some.

Empowering the citizen – the entire purpose of public records laws and an essential for any government by the people – is a goal everyone should support. It’s a move that would have made Idaho a trend-setter in the world of transparency in local government.

But in a win for secrecy and protection of established power, the two organizations have beaten back the original oversight pitch. A compromise plan now would simply let Otter’s public records ombudswoman offer nonbinding advisory opinions on a dispute.

This new idea is common in the U.S. and at least offers the shaming element that so often results in the release of documents. The Legislature should adopt it immediately. But, thanks to local government advocates, it lacks the muscle to actually fix what’s broken.

Editorial from the Twin Falls Times-News

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