Idaho News

Idaho Press Club sues Ada County over public record access

Exterior of the Idaho Statesman office, 2018
Exterior of the Idaho Statesman office, 2018 Idaho Statesman

The Idaho Press Club filed a lawsuit against Ada County on Tuesday, saying officials repeatedly violated the state's Public Record Act in response to four separate public records requests from journalists.

In the lawsuit, filed in Ada County's 4th District Court, attorney Deborah Ferguson asks a judge to order Ada County to release the public records, contending county officials over-redacted some documents and wrongly denied access to others.

State law says lawsuits are the only remedy for people who believe that their public record request has been wrongly denied.

"People who request public records have a right to appeal, and we look forward to the judge weighing in on the substance of this matter," said Ada County spokeswoman Elizabeth Duncan.

In the lawsuit, the Idaho Press Club is asking that the judge order the county to comply with the state's rules for waiving fees associated with access to public records, and to require the county to keep a special log showing why any documents should be kept from release in the future.

In the lawsuit, Idaho Statesman reporters Cynthia Sewell and Katy Moeller, Idaho Public Television reporter Melissa Davlin and Idaho Education News editor Jennifer Swindell all contend they had public records requests wrongly denied, overly redacted or otherwise mishandled by county officials in recent months.

"A vibrant and free press is critical to sustaining the rule of law and is indispensable for people to be informed and to participate in a democracy. By denying and obstructing the access of the press to its public records, Ada County and its agents are thwarting the very purpose of the Idaho Public Records Act: to provide an open and transparent government," Ferguson wrote in the lawsuit.

The Idaho Press Club said Sewell made her public record request to the Ada County Commissioners in February, asking for correspondence and documents pertaining to the lease or purchase of the Les Bois race track. But according to the lawsuit the commissioners didn't respond until April — far past the three days allowed by state law. The commissioners also told Sewell they would charge nearly $700 for access to the documents, to cover the cost of searching for and reviewing the emails.

Commissioners later reduced that fee by 25% — to about $520 — and then went further, agreeing to waive the fees altogether in response to Sewell's request, according to the lawsuit. Still, the county said future fee waivers wouldn't be considered for any public records requests unless the requestor showed they met not just one but all three waiver criteria listed under the state law.

Davlin, on behalf of the Idaho Press Club, filed a public record request with Ada County in April requesting all documentation on how the county had handled Sewell's request. The county responded by providing her with documents that were so heavily redacted that even Davlin's own email address was blacked out, according to the lawsuit.

Swindell, also on behalf of the Idaho Press Club, then filed a public record request with the county in July seeking documents on how the county had handled other public records request in the past. The lawsuit said those responses were similarly redacted.

The lawsuit says the Ada County Sheriff's Office, meanwhile, denied a public record request made by Moeller in a separate incident. Moeller had requested 911 recordings regarding scooter accidents downtown; the sheriff's office reportedly told her they would only release the recording if the people who made the calls agreed to the release.

In a prepared statement, Davlin said she believes the lawsuit will result in increased access to public records for journalists and members of the public.

"These violations by Idaho's largest county only encourage further confusion and abuse of public records law throughout the state," said Davlin, who is vice president of the Idaho Press Club.

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