To her everlasting credit, 4th District Judge Deborah A. Bail last week torched Ada County’s paper-thin excuses for refusing to disclose public records.
Her ruling to uphold the Idaho Public Records Act ripped the fat black permanent markers out of the hands of officials who would keep public work secret. It gave deadlines in the act sharp teeth.
The act essentially requires government bodies to release public documents within 13 working days or within a “mutually agreed upon” extension. The act allows open access to public records with only specific exemptions.
In the case before the court, Boise reporter Cynthia Sewell had requested documents about the lease or purchase of the Les Bois racetrack, a large piece of public land. When she hadn’t gotten them two months later, with no extension, an Idaho Press Club member asked for written documents, emails and text messages regarding Sewell’s request.
After legal huffing and puffing, Ada County released 172 entirely blacked-out pages regarding the club member’s request. The county went so far as to black out the club member’s email address.
Documents that Sewell finally received more than five months after her request were largely blacked out as well.
The Idaho Press Club sued.
Bail rejected the county’s excuses. She wrote: “Ada County not only did not follow the Idaho Public Records Act, it acted as though a different Act had been enacted—a reverse image of Idaho law.”
The judge’s ruling skewered the county’s made-up claims that attorney-client privilege, attorney delay, privacy concerns and a “Deliberative Process Privilege”—unwritten in Idaho law—made it impossible to release the records within a legally required timeframe. The records, she wrote, were improperly and frivolously withheld.
The requested documents were the usual stuff of government created every day in every county and city in Idaho. The county’s excuses are familiar to news reporters everywhere in the state.
Hamstringing the pursuit of public records puts locks on the door of the public’s right to know what its government is doing. It handcuffs democracy. The judge removed the locks and threw away the handcuffs.
Bail’s ruling made it clear that government bodies don’t get to make up rules contrary to state law—nor do their attorneys. In case anyone missed the point, the judge awarded attorney fees and court costs to the Idaho Press Club—unusual in state courts.
The final line of Bail’s ruling should ring loud in the ears of any public official contemplating stalling or withholding public records: “The documents must be supplied forthwith.”