ACHD asks Ada prosecutor to look into commissioner’s emails

ACHD Commissioner Jim Hansen.
ACHD Commissioner Jim Hansen.

UPDATE: The Ada County Highway District Commission on Wednesday voted unanimously to give the Ada County prosecutor the findings of its internal investigation into an alleged open meeting violation by Commissioner Jim Hansen.

Hansen recused himself from the vote. He already this week asked Prosecutor Jan Bennetts to review the matter, and sent her his related emails.

Hansen told the Statesman on Wednesday he did not intend any wrongdoing and he was not trying to circumvent state law.

“Open meetings are very important to me,” he said. “If I had intended to conduct a serial meeting or intended in any way to exclude the public, I would have done it orally. Emails are public documents. Putting it in an email is making it public, it could be accessible to anyone.”

Earlier reporting continues below:

Jim Hansen, an Ada County Highway District commissioner, said Monday he has given an Ada County prosecutor his emails to review after claims he violated Idaho’s open meeting law.

Hansen’s statement comes ahead of a planned vote Wednesday, at which the full ACHD Commission will decide whether to refer the matter to the prosecutor’s office.

An internal investigation determined that Hansen, over email rather than in a public meeting, tried to coordinate a deal in which he would support increased vehicle registration fees if his fellow commissioners would support his public transit agenda.

Hansen told the Statesman the discussion involved whether he would publicly support higher fees after the commission voted 3-2 to put the fee increase to a public vote in November. He said he provided the emails to Prosecutor Jan Bennetts after learning Monday morning about Wednesday’s agenda.

“In retrospect, my mistake was not waiting and responding by presenting these issues at a meeting of the whole commission rather than by email. I apologize. To gain clarity for myself and all public officials, I am referring my email communications for review to the Ada County prosecutor who is tasked with enforcing Idaho’s Open Meeting Law,” Hansen said.

“... I look forward to working with the Ada County Prosecutor’s Office and its evaluation of this matter.”

The measure on the November ballot will ask voters to approve increasing its annual vehicle registration fees by 75 percent. These fees are on top of state registration fees. Hansen voted against the proposal during a meeting July 11.

The emails

Hansen is an attorney and former state lawmaker. According to internal investigation records provided by ACHD, he sent an email on July 25 to Commissioner Paul Woods, in which he said he would support increasing the highway district’s vehicle registration fees if Woods would agree to five specific conditions supporting public transit infrastructure.

“ If you support these, we can then ask for another commissioner to support them and we have a go — potentially unanimous support for the [vehicle registration fee] increase,” Hansen wrote.

Later that same day, Hansen sent a comparable email to Commissioner Kent Goldthorpe, who also voted against the fee increase.

“I’ve been asked is there a way I can support the VRF increase? Yes, and these are the five conditions,” Hansen wrote, identifying the same five conditions he sent Woods.

The next day, on July 26, Goldthorpe forwarded the email he received from Hansen to Woods and ACHD’s other two commissioners, Sara Baker and Rebecca Arnold.

“After receiving the message below from Jim Hansen I believe the only thing he wants is to hold the entire matter hostage. Enjoy the terms of our surrender that he has provided,” Goldthorpe wrote.

Upon reading the email, Arnold sent it to ACHD’s attorney, Steve Price.

“[I]t would appear that Commissioner Hansen is attempting to circumvent the open meeting law by a serial meeting,” Arnold wrote, “and obtain agreement from commissioners on matters that should only be discussed and acted upon in an open, properly noticed meeting.”

Arnold asked ACHD staff to investigate the email from Hansen “and any similar emails to other commissioners.”

ACHD Director Bruce Wong on July 27 notified all five commissioners that “staff will look into this.”

Hansen, though, continued to send emails. In a July 29 email to Baker, Hansen stated, “It’s tough for me to support the VRF increase without something in return on issues that are very important to me.” Several minutes later he sent a comparable email to Arnold.

Both Baker and Arnold notified ACHD’s director and attorney about Hansen’s latest emails.

“I refuse to participate in this serial meeting discussion,” Arnold wrote. “Apparently Jim Hansen does not care that back room deals and decision out the public eye are unethical and illegal.”

What is a ‘serial meeting’?

Under Idaho’s open meetings law, “the formation of public policy is public business and shall not be conducted in secret ... [n]o decision at a meeting of a governing body of a public agency shall be made by secret law.”

A “serial meeting” occurs when officials meet or communicating separately, thereby avoiding having a quorum, which, under state law, requires publicly noticing when, where and why a meeting will be held.

ACHD’s internal investigation reviewed the chronology and content of the emails.

“Not only does Commissioner Hansen’s email seek to determine in secret the outcome of the Commission’s decision on the VRF issue, his stated conditions propose a type of summary ‘trade’ on the votes for various proposals pending before the Commission,” states Price’s report.

“The manner in which he proposes a swap or exchange of votes on some proposals for others would improperly eliminate any meaningful, publicly held deliberation on several other topics and would again undermine the purpose for which Idaho’s open meeting laws were enacted,” concludes the report.

Under Idaho law, the Attorney General’s Office is responsible for enforcing open meeting violations involving state government; county prosecutors are responsible for situations involving local government agencies. A county prosecutor does have the ability to ask the AG’s office or another county prosecutor to assist in an investigation if there is a conflict of interest.

ACHD is Idaho’s only countywide highway district, and is independent of other Ada County agencies such as the prosecutor’s office.

Hansen told the Statesman he is “a strong advocate for open meetings.”

“I always intend and expect to have the issues I care about fully aired in an open public process. People who know me know that is how I operate. Much better policies happen when the public is fully engaged,” he told the Statesman. “I never intended or expected that a decision on any of the issues in my email would be made without lengthy public input. In fact none of these items has yet to be addressed, let alone decided.”

Hansen was elected to the ACHD board in 2012 and re-elected in 2016. According to ACHD’s website, Hansen was elected to the Idaho Legislature in 1988 representing southeast Boise. He was re-elected in 1990 and 1992. In 1995, Hansen founded United Vision for Idaho, a coalition of progressive organizations.

Cynthia Sewell is Idaho Statesman’s politics and investigative reporter. Contact her at (208) 377-6428, csewell@idahostatesman.com or @CynthiaSewell on Twitter.