BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The Idaho Press Club and four Boise-area journalists have won a lawsuit they filed against Ada County officials under Idaho Public Records Act.
In Friday’s ruling, 4th District Judge Deborah Bail wrote that the county’s approach to the public records requests it had received from the journalists was so far removed from the requirements of the state law that it was as though the county were doing the opposite of what the Idaho Public Records Act required.
All of the documents requested by the journalists, with the exception of just a few, must be turned over to them, Bail said. She also ordered Ada County to pay the Idaho Press Club’s attorneys fees.
“Ada County’s approach to handling the Idaho Public Records Act requests in this case was troubling. The Act favors timeliness, narrow exclusions and openness; Ada County’s approach emphasized delay, unsupportable interpretations of privilege and secrecy,” the judge wrote in Friday’s ruling.
In the lawsuit, Idaho Statesman reporters Cynthia Sewell and Katy Moeller, Idaho Public Television reporter Melissa Davlin and Idaho Education News editor Jennifer Swindell contended county officials repeatedly violated the state public records law by wrongly denying access to some documents, over-redacting others and otherwise mishandling public information requests.
In court documents filed in response to the lawsuit, Ada County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney James Dickinson said the Ada County Board of Commissioners and the Ada County Sheriff’s office followed the law and legally redacted information to protect individuals’ rights.
The judge rejected those claims, calling the denials frivolous. She said the county denials were vague and over-reaching.
“While the attorney-client privilege can be asserted for confidential communications between a lawyer and the client for the purpose of legal advice, delegating the administrative/clerical function of gathering public records to a lawyer does not make everything the lawyer touches or copies other employees subject to the protection of the privilege,” Bail wrote.
Davlin said the ruling marks “a great day for government transparency in Idaho.”
“I’m hoping that other government entities are paying attention, because Ada County certainly wasn’t the only one that had public records practices outside the law,” Davlin said. “So, hopefully this ruling means we can avoid these fights in the future.”
Dickinson did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Associated Press.
The Ada County Board of Commissioners said in a statement they believe ardently that public records are just that — public. They said they will provide in-depth training to all county custodians of public records so they can respond to public records requests in the most efficient manner possible.
“Accessible and transparent government is a cornerstone of our democracy, and we will continue to support the media’s access to all public records in our jurisdiction,” the board’s statement said.