Friday, July 27, 2012

A little more sunshine, please


Over the past several years, the Post Register or its affiliate newspapers have been in court four times asking judges to require local government agencies to release information we believed was public.

The most recent instance was the Jefferson Star’s efforts to get phone records from the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department. Those records and additional reporting by the Star’s staff indicate that the sheriff’s wife has used a cell phone paid for by the county for years. (The Jefferson Star is owned by the Post Register’s parent company.)
          
We’ve also tussled in court with the Idaho State Police, the Bingham County prosecutor’s office and the Idaho Falls Police Department. Outside of court we’ve had to push hard to get information or address other right-to-know issues with another handful of government agencies. Too many people in government want to keep too much information secret.
          
The good news is that the courts have generally ruled in our favor. The bad news is that we shouldn’t have to go to court in the first place.
         
Idaho is fortunate to have in Lawrence Wasden a state attorney general who is passionate about openness. He’s conducted dozens of meetings around the state educating government officials on the state’s sunshine laws – those governing meetings and records. His work has had a significant influence throughout the state.
          
And yet, journalists too often find themselves digging for information and occasionally resorting to legal action. Too many government officials take umbrage when we ask for the simplest information that clearly falls within the requirements of the law. We have to ask ourselves, if it’s this hard when we know information exists, how much information is hidden so well that we don’t even know to ask about it?
          
Most public officials are good people doing difficult work. It’s too easy to lump them together as cogs of “The Government” and, therefore, automatically open to suspicion or even distrust. That’s not fair. Good public officials shouldn’t be smeared with the same brush used to paint the handful that fails us.
          
Even well-meaning public officials, however, are too often reluctant to simply hand over information when it’s requested or to make the effort to really learn Idaho’s meeting and records requirements. Too many attorneys for public agencies seem more interested in finding ways to circumvent the laws instead of insisting that both the letter and spirit of sunshine laws are followed.
          
In his manual on the state’s Open Meeting Law, Wasden wrote: “Open and honest government is fundamental to a free society. The Open Meeting Law codifies a simple, but fundamental, Idaho value: The public’s business ought to be done in public.”
          
Is that really so hard to understand?

2 comments:

  1. "Most public officials are good people doing difficult work. It’s too easy to lump them together as cogs of “The Government” and, therefore, automatically open to suspicion or even distrust. That’s not fair. Good public officials shouldn’t be smeared with the same brush used to paint the handful that fails us."

    Jefferson County may be the exception. Near as I can determine, the three commissioners, clerk of the court, prosecutor and sheriff operate in combination. Prior to 2010, expense report receipts were not required or so our local government claims. The sheriff's wife has had a county cell phone assigned to M. Andrea Lee Blair Olsen for at least one year and probably many more. After four months of near total silence the commissioners issued a cell phone statement that is completely laughable and incriminates them in a likely cover up. It included most of the same arguments made to me in a conversation by Jefferson County Prosecutor Robin Dunn. A joke then, even a bigger one now since these fools were dumb enough to write a policy that justifies previous misconduct. Their biggest lie is, "The Board of County Commissioners, both past and present, have authorized the expenditure of a "back-up" cell phone for the Sheriff." They go on to say that they have approved all cell phone expenditures since the implementation of cell phones to the county. Since the cell phone was in the name of the book keeper, guess they didn't know what they were approving? Also, only one former commissioner has gone on record and he has told me personally that he was aware of no such policy. They need to cough up meeting minutes proving their contention. Of course they probably came up with this concoction in one of their secret meetings/executive sessions.

    Not sure about the rest of the state but getting elected in Jeff. Co. appears to be a license to operate with impunity.

    Also, Sunshine laws don't mean anything to them. After writing a letter asking them to clear up rumors I was instructed via email from the clerk of the court to first talk to Robin Dunn and then they wanted me to come talk to them in executive session. I still have the email.

    In Jeff. Co. the act or acts has very little to do with anything. Who you are related to and current or past prominence in its leading institution seem to be the major determinate of right and wrong.

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