Ada County highway commissioners broke Idaho sunshine law, attorney general says

Ada County Highway District Commissioners Kent Goldthorpe, left, and Jim Hansen.
Ada County Highway District Commissioners Kent Goldthorpe, left, and Jim Hansen.

Ada County Highway District commissioners Jim Hansen and Kent Goldthorpe broke Idaho’s open meetings law in July when they sent fellow commissioners emails about district business, according to an opinion from the Idaho Attorney General’s Office.

Those discussions should have taken place in a public meeting because they were “deliberations” as defined in Idaho law and involved a quorum of at least three commissioners, Deputy Attorney General Paul Panther wrote in a letter to ACHD Director Bruce Wong.

Idaho’s open meeting law provides for fines to punish violations. But commissioners can resolve these violations by acknowledging that they occurred and releasing the relevant emails, because “it does not appear that the Commission has taken any action concerning the topics addressed,” Panther wrote.

“In the event action has been taken on any of the topics noted in the email exchanges, further action may be necessary,” the letter said.

Hansen said Friday that the attorney general’s opinion was “totally fair.”

“Lesson learned. Mistake made,” he said. “And I totally own up to that.”

Goldthorpe declined to comment publicly, except to say, “There will be more to this story on Wednesday,” when the commission holds its regular weekly meeting.

Conditions on registration fees

Here’s what happened:

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 to pay for wider intersections, more turn lanes, safer routes to school and other projects aimed at improving transportation. The highway district controls public roads throughout the county.

Hansen and Goldthorpe voted against the measure. Commissioners Sara Baker, Rebecca Arnold and Paul Woods voted in favor of it.

Two weeks later, according to copies of emails attached to Panther’s letter, Hansen emailed Woods and Goldthorpe to say he would get behind the measure if the commission supported initiatives important to him. Those included gathering data on pedestrian, bicycle and public transportation movement on projects whose impact on car traffic is measured; using sales tax money for public transportation improvements such as bus stops; and cooperating with Ada County cities and the Treasure Valley’s transit authority on designing public transportation routes.

The response from Hansen’s fellow commissioners was not positive.

‘He should resign’

In an email, Woods said he regretted asking whether Hansen would be willing to support the fee increase. Goldthorpe forwarded Hansen’s email to Arnold, Baker and Woods, calling Hansen’s condition “the terms of our surrender that (Hansen) has provided.”

The strongest reaction came from Arnold, the commission’s senior member. Suspicious that Hansen was circumventing the state’s open meetings law, she forwarded the email string to Steven Price, ACHD’s attorney, requesting that he refer the matter to Ada County Prosecutor Jan Bennetts.

“It is particularly appalling that he is attempting to obtain approval to spend significant dollars without going through the budgeting process in a public hearing,” Arnold said.

At Bennetts’ request, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden’s office agreed to investigate the emails.

“Apparently Jim Hansen does not care that back room deals and decisions out of the public eye are unethical and illegal,” Arnold wrote in a July 30 email to Baker, Price and Wong. “He should resign.”

Hansen said Friday that he does not plan to resign. He said he knows the Idaho open meetings law, but it didn’t occur to him when he sent the emails that doing so would break that law. He said he has already acknowledged his mistake by posting it on Facebook and talking to the news media, including the Idaho Statesman, about it previously.

“I have always been a strong advocate for open meetings,” Hansen said in an email Friday. “I always intend and expect to have the issues that the people I represent care about fully aired in open public processes.”