Too often, Idaho public records and public meetings laws end up being used as blocking maneuvers instead of tools to guarantee that citizens know what government is doing and spending. Some easy tweaks by state leaders could stop such shenanigans.
The latest exhibit: The Bonneville School District’s contortions to disguise a $200,000 payout to its outgoing superintendent, who is “separating” from the district on Aug. 31, 2019.
The cash will maximize the retirement benefits for Superintendent Chuck Shackett, after he stops receiving his $156,029 annual salary a year from now.
Leave aside the discussion of why a superintendent deserves a special taxpayer boost to max out his retirement. The question that an Idaho Education News reporter asked was simple: What is the school board doing, and what is the cost?
The district approved the payout in a package that included designating the money as part of the superintendent’s personnel record and, therefore, exempt from public exposure. In other words, the district went out of its way to hide the amount under the umbrella designed to protect legitimately private personnel data. And it passed the whole opaque kit and caboodle on its consent agenda, which is intended for routine and noncontroversial matters that merit no discussion.
Thanks to the vigilance of the reporter, Idaho Education News sniffed out the payout, and the district and the superintendent had to come clean. But it bears repeating: Idaho Public Records Law is not the Embarrassment Prevention Law. Because something is sensitive or looks bad or is likely to spark citizen outrage, that’s not a legitimate reason to hide it from citizens.
Sadly, this is just the latest example of districts and governments treating the law as if its exemptions were written to let them act as if they don’t work for the taxpayers.
Earlier this year, the Sugar-Salem School District had to correct its hiring of a superintendent when it used pseudonyms to hide the identities of its superintendent finalists. When Idaho Education News insisted on getting the actual names to vet the finalists, school trustees discussed obtaining a restraining order against the news outlet.
And this is not something that happens just in Eastern Idaho. Nampa tried to hire a superintendent with pseudonymous candidates in 2017, which got resolved after Idaho Education News got its lawyer involved. New Plymouth used the personnel exemption to avoid explaining the departures of its high school principal and superintendent. The Statesman had to argue with the Emmett School District to release a surveillance tape of an incident on a school bus that resulted in a driver’s resignation and misdemeanor charges of injury to a child. To its credit, the district released the tape without the matter ending up in court.
News outlets shouldn’t have to keep lawyers on speed-dial to get basic public records or ensure open public meetings for something as straightforward and publicly vital as hiring or paying a superintendent. And pity the poor, overmatched citizen who doesn’t have the wherewithal of a news company to hire a lawyer.
There are many legitimate reasons for personnel information to remain private. But too often government agencies construe the personnel exemption to be the “Oh-they-don’t-really-need-to-know-that” exemption or the “this-would-make-people-mad” exemption. Although local governments have resisted, our new governor and legislators could pass stronger enforcement provisions and tougher penalties for bad-faith feints and stop most of these abuses.