Printed on: December 09, 2012

They just don't get it

Roger Plothow
Publisher and editor

Too many local government officials violate Idaho's open meeting and public records laws, writes Roger Plothow.

Once again, in a series of events that has become all too familiar, a 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 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 Zion's 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 voters in the Blackfoot School District are paying attention.

Plothow is the Post Register's editor and publisher. You can write to him at 333 Northgate Mile, Idaho Falls, ID. 83403 or email him at rplothow@postregister.com.