Crowd in Nampa learns about open meetings, public records

From Eye on Boise/The Spokesman-Review

A lively crowd of more than 80 gathered in Nampa on Wednesday evening to learn about Idaho’s open meeting and public records laws, and the group had lots of questions – all of which were answered. Among them: What if a city signs a non-disclosure agreement for information that’s not exempt from the Idaho Public Records Law? Do they have to disclose it?

The answer, from Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane: He’d advise against any government entity entering into a non-disclosure agreement unless an existing public records exemption applies. “You can’t create a law, you can’t create anything that has greater confidentiality than the public records law,” Kane said.

Another question from the audience, this one from a reporter: What if I submit a public records request, then three days letter, I get a response back with a form the agency wants me to fill out? Does the three-day deadline start ticking again? Kane’s answer: “I would advise against that practice.” He said, “To me, you’ve probably got a foundation for a legitimate bad-faith claim, if push comes to shove.” Idaho law requires a response to a public records request within three days, unless the records take longer than that to find and assemble, in which case the agency can respond within three days that it’ll take up to 10 days.

Kane also advised agencies against sending a 10-day extension letter, then denying the request. Nothing makes people madder, he said. The 10 days are not time to think about whether or not to grant the request; they’re time to get the records together, separate exempt from non-exempt information, and the like. If an agency is going to deny a request, just do it within the three days, he advised.

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden joined Kane and myself to lead the session; it’s one of a series sponsored by IDOG, Idahoans for Openness in Government, in the Treasure Valley area this fall. (Full disclosure here: I’m IDOG’s president.) The first was a well-attended session in McCall last month, and the next is one set for Boise on Oct. 20; there’s RSVP information here.

Wednesday’s session was co-sponsored by the Idaho Press-Tribune and the City of Nampa, and was held in the council chambers at Nampa City Hall. These sessions, made possible in part by grants from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Best of the West Foundation, have been held around the state since 2004; last year, well-attended workshops were held in North Idaho, and next year, they’ll return to eastern Idaho.

Scott McIntosh, editor of the Press-Tribune, told the crowd that he’s had people come to his newspaper over the years asking if the paper will file a public records request for them, in the mistaken belief that only the news media can do that. Actually, the public records law is for everyone, he said, and citizens can use it too.

The audience participated in interactive skits, learned about the laws through stories of actual and sometimes odd instances of compliance and non-compliance here in Idaho, and enjoyed hearty refreshments provided by the Press-Tribune. They also received Idaho Open Meeting Law and Public Records Law manuals and other resources to take with them.

Attendees gave the session high marks in their evaluations. “I didn’t realize what was considered public records,” wrote a citizen. “Very informative,” wrote a city employee. A school district employee wrote, “Got some explainin’ to do with the boss!” A state agency employee wrote that she learned much she’ll put to use at work right away. “I learned I don’t know more than I thought I didn’t know!” she wrote.

An elected official wrote, “It was good info for open meeting law that was needed,” and added that he learned “both the how-to and what to have on agendas for both open meetings and executive sessions.” Another elected official wrote that she learned, “Public records are public, you can do with them what you want. Don’t ask why.”

A public employee wrote, “There has been some discussion on what qualifies as a public record amongst co-workers and myself. I better understand this now and know how to respond.”

A citizen wrote that she learned, “Public records and open meetings are key to our form of government – lose it, we lose freedom.” Wrote another citizen, adding a smiley-face: “I knew nothing; now I’m dangerous. I now have resources. I know how to proceed if necessary.”

From Eye on Boise/The Spokesman-Review

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