Now we know what Ada County's disregard for Idaho's pubic records law cost the county: $47,310. That was the award for the Press Club’s court costs and attorney fees that a 4th District judge approved in a Feb. 26 order, after the court found that the county, following legal advice from county Prosecutor Jan Bennett's office, had repeatedly flouted the law. The county repeatedly took the position that all public records are exempt from disclosure if they could possibly affect an array of broad concerns including “privacy,” “deliberative process,” “attorney-client,” “personnel,” and so forth — without reference to any of the more than 100 specific exemptions in the Idaho Public Records Act.
Fourth District Judge Deborah Bail found in December that the county “not only did not follow the Idaho Public Records Act, it acted as though a different Act had been enacted — a reverse image of Idaho law.”
The county's defense of its actions was deemed frivolous, and it was ordered to pay the winning side's attorney fees and costs.
Last week was Sunshine Week, a national initiative first launched by the American Society of News Editors in 2005 to educate the public about the importance of open government and the dangers of excessive and unnecessary secrecy. Smack in the middle of Sunshine Week, the Idaho Senate voted 27-6 in favor of HB 601, creating new public records exemptions for legislators and public officials; and the House voted unanimously in favor of SB 1338a, another bill creating new public records exemptions, though this one had been substantially toned down by amendments. Both bills headed to the governor’s desk.
On HB 601, Senate Majority Caucus Chair Kelly Anthon, R-Burley, told the Senate, “Legislators have privacy too. And I think this bill recognizes that some of the things that we do, in our work product and the way that we communicate with one another, and the importance of that process, are protected as well.”
In these uncertain times, citizens need more openness and transparency from their government — not less. So, a belated Happy Sunshine Week to everyone. You can read my full column here at idahopress.com (subscription required), or see this week's Sunday/Monday print edition of the Idaho Press.
By the way, I’ve had some readers who haven’t closely followed the issue ask me what the Ada County case was all about. Basically, Ada County was ignoring, denying, over-redacting and doing other illegal stuff in response to public records requests from reporters from multiple Idaho news organizations for a very long time, and the reports we were hearing at the Idaho Press Club over the last year and a half pushed us to the point where we decided we had to sue. The big one was a request from Statesman reporter Cynthia Sewell about leases involving Les Bois Park. The county just plain ignored Cynthia's request for months, and then claimed it was still following the law and wanted to charge her hundreds of dollars. When they finally released some documents months and months later, they were redacted to the point that they were essentially just hundreds of pages of all-blacked-out type.
When the Press Club's vice president and 1st Amendment Chair Melissa Davlin filed a public records request for records about how the county was responding to Sewell's request, they responded by charging Melissa $42 and sending her completely blacked-out pages, including a page on which her own name and email address were blacked out. That was the "personal privacy" information they were claiming was exempt. None of that complied with the law.
The Press Club included those and other recent responses by the county to reporters' public records requests in the lawsuit – and finally got the point across that they do have to follow the law. What's amazing is that it took that long.