Custer County prosecutor determines no open meeting law violation by commissioners

From the Idaho Statesman


An Idaho prosecutor determined county commissioners did not violate the state’s opening meeting law in May when they co-hosted a land use workshop with American Stewards of Liberty, a nonprofit known for anti-public lands statements.

Custer County prosecutor Justin Oleson began investigating the May 5 meeting last month after Washington, D.C.,-based Accountable.US urged him to look into a potential open meeting law violation. The watchdog group said county commissioners conducted public business — discussing land use plans and national forest revision plans — but made it “practically impossible for ordinary Idahoans to attend” by charging $125 per person.

Idaho’s open meeting law requires that any meeting of a governing board for a public agency be open to the public unless the board meets requirements for an executive session.

On June 30, Oleson sent a letter to Accountable.US telling the organization he had finished his investigation and concluded no open meeting law violation occurred. Oleson said the workshop did not count as a meeting and added that the existence of scholarships for the entry fee — which he said went unused — proved there was no obstacle to the public attending.

Oleson said a Custer County commissioner attended an American Stewards of Liberty workshop at a meeting of the Western Intermountain Region of the National Association of County Officials. The commissioner felt a similar workshop would be helpful for public officials in Custer County, Oleson said.

Oleson said all three Custer County commissioners attended the workshop but did not sit together or discuss matters of public interest.

“It appears that this training was no different than numerous other trainings that county officials attend to increase their knowledge and abilities to do their job for the citizens of their respective counties,” Oleson wrote.

According to Boise State Public Radio reporting, the county paid American Stewards of Liberty $6,000 to $7,000 for the workshop. The nonprofit’s co-founder Margaret Byfield, who attended The College of Idaho and is the daughter of Nevada ranchers who were part of the original Sagebrush Rebellion, spoke at the Custer County workshop. The Sagebrush Rebellion was a movement in the 1970s and ‘80s in which western ranchers sought to remove public land from federal control.

In 2015, High Country News reported that Custer County had paid American Stewards of Liberty at least $23,000 by August of 2014.

In response to Oleson’s letter, Accountable.US officials said they were unhappy with the prosecutor’s decision.

“The prosecutor’s decision to condone a public meeting with a price tag is disappointing,” said Jordan Schreiber, Accountable.US’s energy and environment director, in a statement provided to the Idaho Statesman. “The law is clear here — whenever a quorum of commissioners are present for a meeting where the public’s business is discussed, it must be open to the public they serve.

“American Stewards of Liberty has a long track record of stuffing its pockets with tax dollars from counties that can least afford it,” Schreiber added. “Unfortunately for taxpayers, the fringe conspiracies they advance and the lies they tell about land conservation are never worth the price of admission.”

From the Idaho Statesman

Not an IDOG member yet?