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Ada highway commissioner slams colleague for ‘betrayal of the public trust’

Ada County Highway District Commission President Sara Baker, left, and Commissioner Jim Hansen
Ada County Highway District Commission President Sara Baker, left, and Commissioner Jim Hansen

The president of Ada County Highway District’s commission has written a letter criticizing — in unusually strong language — fellow Commissioner Jim Hansen for breaking Idaho’s open meeting law in July.

The letter was a response to an analysis by Deputy Idaho Attorney General Paul Panther, who concluded that Hansen broke state law when he sent fellow members of the district’s five-member commission emails listing his conditions for supporting a measure to raise car registration fees.

“Commissioner Hansen intentionally violated the Open Meeting Laws in order to further his own political agenda,” Sara Baker wrote in a letter to Panther. “His violations are blatant and egregious as he attempted to trade votes on deliberative issues pending before the Commission for decision. Indeed, Commissioner Hansen deliberately attempted to hold the other Commissioners hostage outside the public view.”

Baker’s letter also seeks to exonerate Commissioner Kent Goldthorpe, whom Panther also faulted because he forwarded Hansen’s emails to other commissioners.

“Commissioner Goldthorpe was merely alerting his colleagues to Commissioner Hansen’s maneuverings,” she wrote.

Goldthorpe told the Idaho Statesman on Tuesday that he agrees with the substance of the letter, though he was taken aback by Baker’s wording.

“Many people had the wrong idea about my involvement,” he said.

Hansen disagreed with Baker’s letter. He said its wording is consistent with the way she talks to him when the news media is not around to hear it.

“But I’m very surprised that she wants to go that extra step and inject it into this process,” he told the Statesman on Tuesday.

Baker declined to comment Tuesday through a spokeswoman. The attorney general’s office declined to comment because it is a pending legal matter.

Background

On July 11, the ACHD commission authorized a measure on the November ballot that will let Ada County voters decide whether to raise their own car registration fees. Hansen and Goldthorpe voted against the measure. Commissioners Sara Baker, Rebecca Arnold and Paul Woods voted in favor of it.

Two weeks later, Hansen emailed Woods and Goldthorpe to say he would support the measure if the commission backed several transit-related initiatives important to him. In sending those emails to other commissioners, Panther concluded, Hansen violated Idaho’s open meetings law because he was discussing district spending with a quorum of commissioners outside a public forum. Hansen admitted he should’ve known better but said he didn’t intentionally break the law. He said he wasn’t trying to trade votes, as Baker accused him of doing.

The day after receiving Hansen’s email, Goldthorpe forwarded it to other commissioners’ private email addresses — also invoking a quorum and earning a rebuke from Panther.

But Goldthorpe saw Hansen’s email as a discussion of the campaign for the ballot measure on registration fees — a political issue, not a matter of district business, according to Baker’s letter. That’s why he forwarded the note to fellow commissioners’ private addresses.

“He was legitimately concerned about using public resources, including computer resources, for the advocacy for or against various ballot measures,” Baker’s letter reads. “Commissioner Goldthorpe’s concern in this regard was specifically rooted in President Baker’s directive to refrain using public resources in such a manner.”

‘Make an example’ of him

Baker disagreed with Panther’s suggestion that the damage from Hansen’s email was limited because it wasn’t a factor in any commission decisions. She said the email might have tainted the commission’s Aug. 22 vote on next year’s budget, rendering it “null and void.”

She’s wrong, Hansen said.

“That budget did not have any funding for the transit infrastructure for which I have advocated,” he said.

Baker called on the Attorney General to “prosecute to the fullest extent” Hansen’s violation instead of Panther’s recommendation that Hansen acknowledge his error, release the pertinent emails and receive further education on Idaho’s open meetings law.

“ACHD encourages your office to make an example of Commissioner Hansen so it will be well understood that compliance with Idaho’s Open Meeting Laws are a necessary component of a transparent and accountable public agency,” she wrote.

Idaho law provides for fines of people who violate the open meetings law.

Again, Hansen disagrees.

“Since there has been no decision nor any action, there is no basis to reject the A.G.’s cure,” he wrote in an email to the Statesman on Tuesday.

The commission is scheduled to vote Wednesday afternoon on whether to send Baker’s letter to the Attorney General’s office, making it part of the permanent public record.

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