Otter chooses attorney as public records watchdog

Advocates hope that cities and counties replicate the model.

THE ASSOCIATED PRESSApril 24, 2014 

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Gov. Butch Otter said Cally Younger will start her job by surveying agencies on request numbers and reasons for denial.

PROVIDED BY THE GOVERNOR’S OFFICE

Gov. Butch Otter appointed Cally Younger, his associate attorney, to be the state's new public records ombudsman, with authority to review how agencies handle records requests and how Idaho's laws can be improved.

The governor said the move comes in response to a request from the Newspaper Association of Idaho, in hopes of creating an option that can resolve public records disputes without the expense of taking them through the court system.

Under Idaho public record laws, if a person feels that a request was wrongly denied, their only option has been to sue.

"A public records ombudsman in my office will be a kind of relief valve for the process," Otter said in a statement.

"If we can resolve an issue before it crosses the courthouse steps, we would like to do that," he told reporters.

The executive order applies only to state agencies, offices, boards and commissions and does not extend to city and county governments. But that doesn't mean that local agencies can't create a comparable position, Newspaper Association of Idaho Executive Director Jeremy Pisca said.

"The state can lead by example and hopefully local governments will follow that lead," Pisca said.

Matt Davison, the publisher of the Idaho Press-Tribune and a member of the Newspaper Association of Idaho, said newspapers typically have more trouble obtaining public records from county and city governments.

JOB AHEAD

Otter said the ombudsman will compile and maintain a list of concerns and complaints from individuals about agency policies, processes and decisions denying access to public records and report that information to the governor every year by Dec. 30.

Younger will work with agencies, stakeholders and the public to provide recommendations to the governor for improving public record disclosure policies and laws, including possible legislation to establish a review process at the state and local level before or in lieu of litigation, Otter's office said.

An opinion by the ombudsman won't be legally binding, said Pisca. But it will provide both the agency and the citizen with an unbiased opinion on whether the denial was justified.

If it's not justified, Pisca said, the state agency should want to comply with state public records law. If the agency still does not comply, the ombudsman's opinion provides better evidence for the citizen should the case go to court.

"There seems to be an alarming trend of public record denials" at both local and state levels, Pisca said. "It was this alarming trend that prompted this."

Idaho deputy attorney generals stationed at state agencies are generally responsible for reviewing and responding to records requests made to the state. Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden and his staff regularly hold training sessions for the press and public on open meetings and open records laws, and the office has published a public records manual on its website.

Otter said the ombudsman will deal only with requests made to his state agencies, not other constitutional state offices, such as the attorney general.

Otter's spokesman, Jon Hanian, said that because the attorney general does the first review of most of the state's responses to records requests, it makes sense to have the ombudsman come from a separate office.

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