Otter: Open government is fundamental

Guest opinion from the Idaho Statesman

By Gov. Butch Otter

Open, transparent and accessible government is fundamental to a successful free society. That’s why I appointed a public records ombudsman in April 2014 after hearing from constituents that existing law provides only a burdensome remedy for challenging public record request denials.

I tasked the new ombudsman, an attorney named Cally Younger, with looking into the state public records process and whether anything should be changed in our laws or agency rules to advance my goal of increasing transparency in Idaho’s state government.

Cally found that state agencies generally do a good job of responding to public records requests and these agencies receive almost no complaints when issuing a denial. However, all state agencies also have room for improvement. Each of them can take steps towards modernizing their request process in order to keep costs down and respond to requests more quickly.

A primary tool for modernizing such administrative processes is better use of the Internet and individual agency Web sites. Contact information for public information officers should be easy to find and public records request policies and fee schedules should be posted online. These are simple things that agencies can do immediately to increase transparency and accountability.

I also asked Cally to examine Idaho code to see if any changes were needed in our laws. The ombudsman assembled a diverse group of stakeholders to assess the Idaho Public Records Act, including representatives from the news media, cities, counties and the Attorney General’s Office.

The first issue the group found was that statutes relating to transparency in government were dispersed throughout Idaho Code, making it more difficult for citizens to readily identify them. The group crafted legislation to put all transparent and ethical government statutes under a new title called Transparency and Ethics in Government. Those proposals are in House Bill 90 and House Bill 91, both of which were approved by the Idaho House of Representatives and await action in the Senate.

This legislation shows that Idaho is serious about increasing transparency – starting with making its laws as easy to navigate as possible.

Still being considered are proposals to formalize the ombudsman role and give it authority to review public record request denials and issue advisory opinions.

I look forward to the group’s continuing efforts to identify and address the burdens on access to public records, and I appreciate the steps Cally and her colleagues are taking to ensure Idaho citizens are among the best informed in the world.

Guest opinion from the Idaho Statesman

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