Printed on: May 01, 2013

Filling the 30-day loophole


On May 21, folks in Blackfoot will continue the cleansing of their school board. Two trustees who knowingly violated Idaho's Sunshine Laws have resigned. A third isn't seeking re-election.

And yet, nobody should be satisfied with this result. That's because former Superintendent Scott Crane walked away with nearly a quarter million dollars in public money and the legal loophole that allowed for this outcome remains on the books.

To recap, the Blackfoot board on two occasions broke Idaho's Open Meeting Law by discussing Crane's separation agreement in executive session. A lawsuit was filed by former Blackfoot teacher Joyce Bingham and joined by the Post Register.

The board, guided by attorney Dale Storer, refused to turn over public documents until forced by Sixth District Judge David Nye, who summarized Blackfoot's efforts with these words: "Everything about this case smacks of a public agency trying to hide its decision-making from the public."

The board broke the Open Meeting Law, got caught and admitted it. Violating this law means the action taken in the illegal meetings is void. Right?

Nope.

The board fired Storer and its new attorney, on loan from the Idaho School Boards Association, earned her money by unearthing this nugget. Breaking the Open Meeting Law doesn't void the action taken if you manage to hide it for 30 days.

So: Crane got his cash.

Blackfoot's students and parents got the shaft.

And Idaho has a problem.

Blackfoot's board introduced a twist the authors of Idaho's Sunshine Laws might not have envisioned three decades ago: that an elected board would willfully and unanimously break the law and hide that from the public.

It took eight months and a lawsuit to smoke out the truth. It could not have been done in 30 days or 60 days or even 90 days.

The challenge before Idaho's policymakers and interested groups such as the Idaho Press Club is to make sure the Open Meeting Law protects the public but does not allow for abuse. The idea is not to start a free-for-all in which someone declares a two-year-old action void on a technicality. But certainly in cases such as the malfeasance in Blackfoot, the public deserves the opportunity to prove that the action -- in this case, the payments to Crane -- sprang from soil so poisonous that the only reasonable alternative is to tear it out by the roots.

The patrons of one of Idaho's poorest school districts aren't getting their $220,000 back. But, a lesson has been learned. We know the depths to which some will sink and that the law intended to guarantee transparent government is broken.

Shame on all of us if we don't make every effort to fix it.

Corey Taule