Robert Ehlert: Scrutiny of government safeguards freedoms

What good is a government if it carries out its agendas and business in secret and never allows citizens to examine its books or question its decisions? Answer: no good.

Fortunately, we live in a nation where we have recourse in the form of open-meeting and public-records laws. The only limits to our level of participation in government are those (with some exceptions) we place on ourselves. The people have a right and the press has a duty to advocate for an open and transparent government.

In Idaho we have the statutory tools necessary to observe and question what is going on behind the dais at a meeting. We have a right to be informed when and why some matters are discussed behind the closed doors of executive sessions. We have a right to ask for information kept behind the counter at our government agencies. All we need is more awareness, practice and resolve to use those tools.

Tuesday evening another 50 people in the Treasure Valley participated in an Open Meeting/Public Records Workshop sponsored by IDOG (Idahoans for Openness in Government), the Idaho Statesman and Boise Public Radio. This group included interested citizens, members of the media, government workers and a number of elected officials — all of whom came away with a higher level of understanding and empowerment.

That’s because the “faculty” included experts such as Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, Deputy AG Brian Kane and Betsy Russell, president of IDOG and a seasoned Statehouse correspondent for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane.

This week’s workshop was the 37th Wasden has presented around the state over more than a decade, during which 2,500 people have attended. Wasden, a tireless champion of open government, discussed the ground rules for open meetings and public records access while Kane answered questions and Russell gave a reporter’s insight.

During the three-hour seminar, Kane delivered analogies that sum up the powers of transparency that are at the public’s disposal, and the guidelines for a government agency’s cooperation: “Open-meeting law is your ticket to the government to observe,” he said. “Public-records law is your fishing license (to search for documents).”

Though the topic can be dry, the presentation is jazzed up at different points with skits that stimulate discussion. One of the better examples of this can be accessed in the archives at Idaho Public Television on the occasion when professional actors performed the sketches: idahoptv.org/dialogue/openidaho/.

Your city council, school board, irrigation district, Legislature or whatever — they are all bound by law to present timely and detailed agendas so you will know when, where and what is being discussed. All of their policy decisions are designed to be public — though there are narrow circumstances for when a body can retire to executive session (for instance, to discuss certain personnel matters).

The second part of the workshop (a continuing series offered at several locations around the state in the future) is devoted to public records. One nugget to remember: The keepers of the information can ask what you are looking for, but not why. Their job is only to comply, and they may ask questions to that end.

If you love government in the open and you missed Tuesday’s gathering, don’t miss an opportunity to join or reference materials at IDOG . You can also secure explanatory booklets about Idaho’s laws on open meetings and public records at the Attorney General’s Office, 700 W. Jefferson St. , Boise, or by going to ag.idaho.gov.

Robert Ehlert is the Statesman’s editorial page editor. Reach him at 377-6437 or follow @IDS_HelloIdaho.