Sandpoint turns out for open government seminar

From Eye on Boise/Spokesman-Review

It’s a balmy 28 degrees in Sandpoint this morning, where last night more than 50 people packed the public meeting room at the Sandpoint Library to learn about Idaho’s open meetings and public records laws. “Open meetings and public records are very important to us as a citizenry,” Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden told the group.

It was the first of four North Idaho seminars this week sponsored by Idahoans for Openness in Government, IDOG, in partnership with the Attorney General’s office and recommended by the Idaho Press Club, the Idaho Association of Counties and the Association of Idaho Cities. Last night’s seminar was co-sponsored by the Bonner County Daily Bee; publisher David Keyes said the turnout shows people here really want to know about these issues.

Among the points that got a lot of attention last night: The Open Meeting Law says the public can attend the meeting, but doesn’t say they can speak or participate; it just guarantees that citizens can observe. E-mails are public records. Agencies can’t take 10 days to decide whether or not to release a public record in response to a request; that decision has to be made within three days – the law only allows taking up to 10 days to provide the records when it takes longer than the specified three days to locate or retrieve them. And a new law passed this year makes the first two hours of labor and the first 100 pages of copies free of charge in public records requests, excepting only those records for which there’s a separate fee-setting statute, such as records in court files. “What this means is that 90 percent of your public records requests are going to be free,” Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane told the Sandpoint crowd.

Tonight, it’s on to Coeur d’Alene, where there’s been high interest, followed by Moscow on Wednesday and Lewiston on Thursday. Full disclosure here: I’m the president and a founding board member of IDOG. Last night was IDOG’s 20th open government seminar since 2004, and the first in North Idaho since 2005; Attorney General Wasden has led every seminar. There’s more info, including an online guide to these laws, at www.openidaho.org.

From Eye on Boise/Spokesman-Review

Learning about open records, meetings

May 27, 2010

MOUNTAIN HOME, Idaho — It was a rainy spring evening in Mountain Home, but that didn’t stop a near-capacity crowd of about 50 from filling the Mountain Home Senior Center for a seminar on Idaho’s open meetings and public records laws, complete with Attorney General Lawrence Wasden himself, interactive skits involving lots of audience members, and refreshments afterward.

Elmore County Commissioner Connie Cruser welcomed the crowd, and Wasden, Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane and IDOG President Betsy Russell led the presentation, with plenty of help from audience members who got a chance to portray snoopy reporters, recalcitrant public officials, and others doing things the right way – and the wrong way – under the state’s key openness in government laws.

The session earned top marks from attendees in written evaluations.

“Great overview – where to find answers, who to call,” wrote one elected official who attended; she added, “I appreciated the hands-on, personal approach to this class.”

Bob Cooper of the Idaho Attorney General’s office handled set-up, while the senior center folks had the cookies and punch ready. A banner hung along the wall, stating the preface to Idaho’s Open Meeting Law: “FORMATION OF PUBLIC POLICY AT OPEN MEETINGS. The people of the state of Idaho in creating the instruments of government that serve them, do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies so created. Therefore, the Legislature finds and declares that it is the policy of this state that the formation of public policy is public business and shall not be conducted in secret.”

Every participant in Mountain Home said he or she learned something that could be put to use right away. That included a public official who said he’d “reinforce policy concerning open meeting requirements;” a board clerk listed “posting of notice and agenda;” a citizen wrote “how to interact with government agencies;” and a county employee wrote “correct place to post agendas.”

“I’m more clear about the open meeting laws,” wrote a city zoning administrator. A political candidate gained understanding of the open meeting law and would recommend the seminar to others.

An elected official wrote that his takeaway was this: “Watch what you do very carefully – follow the laws.”

The Mountain Home session was the 23rd such seminar held by IDOG and the Idaho Attorney General since 2004.

Crowd at McCall seminar studies open records, meetings


McCALL, Idaho – More than 60 people gathered for the IDOG open meetings and public records seminar in McCall on May 19, 2010, the 22nd such seminar held around Idaho since 2004.

Those attending ranged from newspaper reporters and editors to city, county, and district elected and appointed officials, staffers for hospitals and fire districts, school officials, emergency responders, clerks, lawyers, political candidates and interested citizens. Leading the seminar were Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden; Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane; and IDOG President Betsy Russell.

Hot topics included “serial” meetings – when public board or commission members contact each other serially to deliberate on an issue rather than gather together, in an effort to evade the Idaho Open Meeting Law – which are violations of the law. Other hot topics: The public’s ability to tape a meeting, which case law says can’t be prohibited if the taping – audio or video – isn’t disruptive of the conduct of the meeting; the fact that email is a public record; and procedures for conducting meetings and responding to public records requests in compliance with the law.

In evaluations of the session, participants gave high marks to interactive skits that cast members of the audience in roles other than their usual ones – a reporter playing a recalcitrant city records clerk, for example, and a public official playing a zealous reporter – while adding a bit of comedy to help bring understanding of the very serious topics covered in the three-hour seminar.

A Planning & Zoning commission chairman who attended the session wrote that among the items learned that could be put into effect immediately were the definition of a serial meeting, and that emails are public records. An elected official wrote of learning “how better to handle our city meetings.” Wrote a citizen who attended, “Thanks for all the booklets!”

All participants were provided with the latest copies of the Attorney General’s open meetings and public records manuals, as well as other manuals on such topics as government ethics.

Everyone filling out evaluations said they’d recommend the seminars, and all said they learned something they could put to use. Receiving rave reviews: The refreshments. The sponsors, McCall Memorial Hospital and The Star-News, provided an array of tempting and creative snacks and sweets.

The seminar was held at the downstairs meeting room of Idaho First Bank in downtown McCall, with a half-hour reception – and a chance to enjoy the outstanding refreshments – preceding the 6 p.m. session.

IDOG bucks World Series

Draws 100+ in Idaho Falls

By Dean Miller

IDAHO FALLS – Reporters and public officials pored over Idaho’s open meetings and open records law together at an Oct. 27 workshop even as the World Series was under way.

Organizers had booked a single meeting room in the Health Sciences building of the Eastern Idaho Technical College and had to call in janitors to move a curtain wall to open up seats for the overflow crowd.

Workshop sponsor Roger Plothow, publisher of the Post Register, noted that he began working on these issues when he was but an Editor and serving as Idaho Press Club President. At that time, in the late 1990s, the Press Club organized a major revision of Idaho laws to protect the public’s right to see government records and attend government meetings.

Plothow expressed happy surprise at the size of the crowd, which included TV and print reporters, dozens of citizen activists and elected state and local officials.

IDOG’s roadshow writers were tickled to observe Post Register reporter Sven Erik Berg in the front row, taking notes shoulder-to-shoulder with Bonneville County Commissioner David Radford. When those two need to work out a public access issue, IDOG’s training ensures they’ll have a shared vocabulary and tools in common with which to address it.

Attorney General Lawrence Wasden reminded participants that his office, which operates as the referee, has observed that both reporters and public officials are wrong about the open meetings, open records act about half the time. Though that would make a great batting average, he said, we can do better. The purpose of the IDOG roadshow is to get people to at least recognize there are standard rules, even if each party reads them slightly differently.

Evaluations from the participants were glowing. The skits, one elected official wrote, were “super,” and the lasting lesson learned: “Assume it’s public unless there’s a specific exemption.” Wrote another: “Great job – better than what I was expecting.” A public employee who attended praised the “pertinent info for my particular job,” and a sewer district board member wrote, “The best thing to do is always have open meetings and only discuss and deliberate there.”

“The info was well covered,” wrote a citizen who attended, while an elected official dubbed it “good preventative medicine.” “We have the tools to maintain our state government’s transparency,” wrote a city attorney. A reporter who attended wrote, “I learned process, order and rights regarding public information.” Wrote another, “I’m a journalist. Now I have a better idea of what I have the right to know. I’ll also be able to differentiate between the truth and getting the run-around.”

Preston seminar draws top reviews

PRESTON, Idaho – “I learned to be a better custodian of public records,” said one state employee who attended the IDOG open meetings and public records seminar in Preston, Idaho on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2008.

“Great job,” wrote a city clerk, who noted in her evaluation of the session that she learned that the agendas she’s been preparing for city meetings need more information. “I see that I am not specific enough,” she said.

And though the session ran a full three hours – from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. – one elected official had just one complaint – he’d have liked “a little longer Q & A.”

“I learned a lot,” declared a local appointed board member, who said executive session rules were among the new information.

A county commissioner said he’d gladly recommend the session to others with similar jobs.

And all those who filled out evaluations at the end of the session, held in the Larsen-Sant Public Library in Preston, gave it top marks for the skits, the handouts, the slide show, and for how the session compared to other workshops they’ve attended. Even the refreshments earned top reviews.

Nearly two dozen people attended, and this in a town whose population at the 2000 census was less than 5,000. Preston is the county seat of Franklin County. Located in the far southeastern corner of the state of Idaho, the town gained national fame with the release of the 2004 film “Napoleon Dynamite,” which was filmed and set there and is the hometown of the film’s creators.

For the IDOG seminar, Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden and Deputy Attorney General Bill von Tagen, along with public information officer Bob Cooper, traveled from Boise, and Idaho Falls Post Register Editor Dean Miller traveled from Idaho Falls.

Pocatello Seminar

From the Post Register

By Dean Miller
POCATELLO – A code of ethics is just words on a page, until you act on it.

KPVI, Channel 6 walked the talk last week.

Anchor/News Director Brenda Baumgartner and a half-dozen staffers spent the night of Oct. 14th at Highland High School putting on a series of skits that are the background of a successful public workshop on open records and open meetings.

The standard American code of newsroom ethics challenges journalists to work for openness in government and KPVI staffers did it.

They played the part of helpful and not-helpful courthouse clerks, secretive county commissioners, obnoxious reporters, grumpy citizens and earnest voters.

The audience, a mix of staffers from government offices around the region laughed, nodded heads and scowled. But the audience did not sleep, and that’s the key.

Sponsored by a non-profit group called Idahoans for Openness in Government, the workshops have been performed in 16 cities around Idaho over the last three years.

The marquee name that gets the audience in the door is Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, who signed on to the idea shortly after taking office.

He was having a hard time convincing the Legislature to fund the printing of small booklets on open meetings and public documents. Newsrooms were tired of fighting the same old fights for access to clearly public documents and meetings.

Sparked by our common goal, the idea was hatched to write a mildly amusing series of skits to educate people about the correct resolution to the most common conflicts between the public and government about openness.

Although I have yet to convince him to wear a referee shirt, Attorney General Wasden steps in to referee each conflict, explaining who is right and wrong. Deputy Attorney General Bill von Tagen amplifies the skits with a short talk about public records and a short talk about public meetings, giving teeth to the arguments forming in audience members’ heads. It works.

According to comment forms we’ve collected from the hundreds of people who have attended the workshops from Sandpoint to Preston, it’s one of the better public workshops government and media staffers have attended.

And it works best when the local media participate, the way KPVI did. Kudos to KPVI reporters Ashli Kimenker, Nisha Gutierrez and Tammy Scardino.

The next local performance of the IDOG workshop is October 27th at 6 p.m. at EITC. If you’d like to attend (it’s free) help us make space for you by RSVPing to Bonnie Hansen at bhansen@postregister.com

This article first appeared at The Uneasy Chair, the editor’s blog by Post Register editor Dean Miller.

From the Post Register

More than 100 attend Twin Falls seminar

More than 100 attend Twin Falls seminar

TWIN FALLS, Idaho – There were county commissioners, newspaper reporters, interested citizens, school district employees, deputy assessors, library workers, a court administrator, city clerks, and planning and zoning commissioners.

There were TV reporters, mayors, cemetery district employees, state legislators, highway district clerks and lots more. And when they all gathered in Twin Falls for three hours on the evening of Oct. 29, 2008, they all learned a lot – about Idaho’s open meeting law, the state’s public records law, what they require, and how to comply and make sure these laws are working in their communities.

Attendance was huge for the session at the Herrett Center for Arts and Sciences, on the campus of the College of Southern Idaho – more than 100 people filled the hall, to hear Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, Deputy Attorney General Bill von Tagen, leading journalists and more – and to participate in the session themselves, acting out parts in skits that helped show what everyone should – and shouldn’t – do under Idaho’s open government laws.

In evaluations of the session, a highway commissioner in the audience gave the evening top ratings. “Very informative about open meetings,” he wrote appreciatively.

Citizen Ed Ditlefsen wrote, “Overall, it was an EXCELLENT seminar. Thank you for presenting it.” He added, “I don’t currently plan on making a public records request, but I feel much more comfortable with the process and what is and isn’t supported.”

One county commissioner wrote that he’d learned something new he can put to use: That drafts are public record. A mayor praised the chance to “brush up on executive session procedure.” Wrote another elected official, “Our county meetings need a lot of work!”

Wrote a reporter who attended, “It is worth everyone’s time to learn this.”