Friday, February 29, 2008

Going soft on secret meetings violates Idahoans? public trust

The state of Idaho has had its current Open Meeting Law on the books for 34 years. Complying with it is one of the first things every state employee learns. The attorney general's office distributes a manual explaining it and conducts seminars on the importance of open government.

Yet, when he had the responsibility for enforcing the law and punishing a violation, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden merely aimed a molly-coddling "tsk, tsk" at the state Board of Education for a Dec. 12, 2007 closed-door meeting, then excused the breach as a "non-knowing violation."

Translated, the attorney general claims to have gotten into the minds of the board and decided members (a) didn't understand the 30-year-old law that is widely discussed or (b) they were innocent of any attempt to abuse the law.

Well, now. The attorney general is setting up an official lame excuse for all sorts of other egregious behavior in state government, even beyond violating the Open Meeting Law. Misusing state funds through a "non-knowing violation." "Non-knowing" abuse of employees. "Non-knowing" tax breaks for cronies in business. "Non-knowing" misuse of a state vehicle for a vacation trip to Florida.

Scoundrels with larceny in their hearts might simply claim, "Gosh, I was just non-knowing about not doing that."

Intent is an important part of any violation. But ignorance of the law isn't a fitting rationale to excuse the conduct of state officials by the attorney general, who asserts on his Web site, "The public's business ought to be done in public."

The law is clear about violations. Simple "deliberation" in secret is outlawed. The education board had closed the doors and discussed, among other things, eliminating the ninth-grade Idaho Standards Achievement Test (ISAT).

Had the state's chief lawyer found the Board of Education guilty, the punishment would've been wimpy--perhaps a $150 fine for each member. However, an official denunciation of their conduct would've sent a chilly warning across the entire state bureaucracy that this attorney general means what he says—"The public's business ought to be done in public."

Instead, Wasden went soft, even defending and justifying the closed-door meeting.

In a final note of unintended irony and humor, the attorney general said in his decision that "the board would benefit from receiving training on the Open Meeting Law."

If Board of Education members cannot understand the clear English of a not-so-complicated law, then perhaps there is something wrong with our education system.

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