Saturday, December 8, 2012

They just don't get it


Once again, in a series of events that has become all too familiar, a local judge has ruled that a local public entity has illegally withheld documents from the public.

This time, the culprit was the Blackfoot School District, which has been fighting several plaintiffs, including the Post Register, over documents that likely reveal to whom the district paid more than $105,000 of taxpayers’ money earlier this year. This case is particularly egregious because the school board made decisions involving this payment in an executive session that its attorney now admits also was illegal.

It didn’t take District Judge David C. Nye long to make up his mind. Exactly one week after hearing arguments in his courtroom, Nye issued a nine-page decision ordering the district to turn over the documents. Since it must have taken him some time to do the writing, it’s clear he made his decision not long after the hearing.
          
The district argued that the documents we sought were exempt from disclosure because they were part of a personnel file. Nye swatted that argument down.
          
“Parties cannot exempt a public record from disclosure and hide it from the public simply by placing it in a personnel file and declaring the personnel file exemption to be applicable to it,” he wrote.
          
The issue here is plain for all to see. On April 24, the Blackfoot School Board went into an executive session to “consider hiring a public officer, employee, staff member or individual agent,” the judge wrote. Then-Superintendent Scott L. Crane attended the private session.
          
Minutes for that meeting, the judge notes, show “that the agreement between the board and Employee B-2012 has been executed.” In open meeting after the executive session, Crane’s retirement was announced. It was only in October that the district acknowledged to the Post Register that Employee B-2012 was Crane. In the district’s expenditure summary for July there is record of a payment to Zions Bank in Salt Lake City for $105,428. The description of the payment is simply “AP Contract Services.”
         
The question is pretty obvious: Did the district pay Crane $105,428? The district has done everything in its power to hide that information. Thanks to Nye’s decision, we’ll all soon know.
          
As troubling as these events are, they are frustratingly common. This is only the most recent case in which the Post Register and others have had to take public entities to court to get them to release information that was clearly public. Despite persistent efforts by Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden to educate public officials on the law, Idaho’s Open Records Act and Open Meeting Law are routinely violated.
          
We hope the voters of the Blackfoot School District are paying attention.

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