Wednesday, February 2, 2005

Idaho Press Club shut out again

Judge rules against media outlets on closed meetings

Express Staff Writer

Whether to be able to close committee hearings and random meetings or not is the question being argued in the Idaho Legislature.

Idaho's Republican leaders want to circumvent legislative rules that forbid closed committee hearings for any reason, arguing the Senate need not obey the state's Open Meetings Law. That law prohibits closed meetings of Legislative committees.

Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, of Idaho Falls, said the Senate need not abide by state statutes such as the Idaho Open Meeting Law.

Since 1990 there have been thousands of meetings, with only a handful closed. Most of those have occurred in the recent past.

The Idaho Press Club, a group of Idaho radio, newspaper and television reporters that challenged the closed meetings, sued the Legislature in May 2004. The group says the Legislature is violating the Idaho Constitution.

The Press Club lost another attempt Thursday, Jan. 27, to block the Legislature from closing its committee meetings at its discretion. Boise 4th District Judge Kathryn Sticklen refused to reconsider a challenge from the Idaho Press Club for the second time.

"The Senate has the right to set its own rules," Davis said.

House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, R-Burley, was also pleased with Sticklen's ruling.

"I don't think this is a cry from the public. I think it's the press, and I think it's overblown," he said.

However, Idaho Press Club President Betsy Russell remained firm. "The press is the eyes and ears of the public. Our job is to let people know what government is doing,"

Senate Minority Leader Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, agreed. "We encourage people to bring facts and figures, pro and con. These meetings are where we deliberate and do the business of the Legislature. Of course, a lot of it happens on the floor, but that's where the grandstanding goes on," he said Tuesday, Feb. 1.

"This is the public's business and we're paid to do the public's business," Stennett said. "It's best done in public. There are three exceptions already: litigation, acquisition of property and personnel matters. That is the statute that the Legislature has provided."

Stennett added that the Legislature doesn't deal in personnel issues or buy land. He said the Senate has relied on the current statute to close meetings in the past for the rare times there was a litigation matter to discuss.

Davis had said the rule was intended to be used in extreme circumstances, such as informing lawmakers about the potential threat of terrorism. However, the closed meetings in 2003 and 2004 addressed such issues as the Nez Perce water settlement, field burning and taxes.

"You check your gut and if it doesn't feel right then don't do it," Stennett said. "It's a dangerous precedent."

He added that there is some value to closing a meeting to discuss serious threats, such as terrorism, but it's limited.

"I'd say 99.9 percent of the business of the Legislature is in public and should stay that way. We can talk about anything and wrap it in a blanket of terrorism."

The Press Club is expected to appeal the decision to the Idaho Supreme Court.

(The Associated Press contributed to this story.)

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