The crowd booed and hissed Wednesday afternoon when Sara Baker and Rebecca Arnold criticized fellow Ada County Highway District Commissioner Jim Hansen’s violations of Idaho’s Open Meetings Law.
They applauded Commissioner Paul Woods’ comments that, yes, Hansen broke the law, but there was no need to call on the Idaho attorney general to punish him. Several held signs reading “I’m with Jim.”
Police officers and ACHD staffers escorted a few people, who stood and shouted their displeasure, out of the room. One man tried to force his way back in, but the same personnel blocked him. ACHD had asked one police officer to attend the meeting. He called in two others for backup once the unruliness started, district spokeswoman Nicole Du Bois said.
In the end, the protesters’ side lost. Baker and Arnold voted to send a letter to the Attorney General’s Office calling for punishment that would make an example of Hansen and claiming that his conduct had jeopardized the validity of the commission’s approval of next year’s budget.
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Baker wrote the letter as a response to an analysis by Deputy Idaho Attorney General Paul Panther, who concluded that Hansen broke state law in July when he sent emails to fellow members of ACHD’s five-member commission listing his conditions for supporting a measure to raise car registration fees.
Woods voted against sending the letter. Hansen and Commissioner Kent Goldthorpe, who forwarded Hansen’s email to other commissioners, had recused themselves and stepped down from the meeting.
“It is (the attorney general’s) responsibility to hold Mr. Hansen accountable — or not,” Baker said shortly before Wednesday’s vote. “Should they choose not to do so, it would in effect give him a pass — ‘Go and sin no more.’ In my opinion, the open meeting law in Idaho would then become meaningless.”
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. Baker, Arnold and Woods voted for 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, 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 have known better but said he didn’t intentionally break the law. He said he wasn’t trying to trade votes outside the public eye — an illegal activity.
Woods believed him.
“In my time serving with Commissioner Hansen on the commission, he has never attempted to broker favor in secret,” he said Wednesday.
Baker and Arnold saw it the other way. Baker’s letter said Hansen, in fact, “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.”
“It is very clear that Commissioner Hansen was attempting to make a back-room deal,” Arnold said Wednesday. “Do we want the people’s business conducted in the sunshine, in open meetings, based upon the law, the facts and public input? Or do we want the people’s business to be conducted based on horse trading and back-room deals out of the public eye?”
Baker disagreed with Panther’s suggestion that the damage from Hansen’s emails was limited because it wasn’t a factor in any commission decisions. She wrote that the emails might have tainted the commission’s Aug. 22 vote on next year’s budget, rendering it “null and void.”
Woods and Hansen said the vote was legitimate, because none of the initiatives Hansen requested were included in the budget.