Press Club writes to leadership about open meeting questions

Idaho Press Club President Betsy Russell and First Amendment Committee Chair Rebecca Boone, concerned about open meeting and notice questions involving the Legislature’s Tax Working Group, sent the following letter to House Speaker Scott Bedke and Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill. The working group started as a small gathering of members of legislative leadership over the summer, and grew with each subsequent meeting. Then, the leaders asked the chairs of the House and Senate tax committees to each appoint five members from their house – but not a quorum of their tax committee – to a new Tax Working Group. They did so, but as of the new group’s first meeting on Sept. 17, it wasn’t yet listed on the Legislature’s website along with all other interim committees and task forces, nor was its meeting publicized there or streamed live online like the other panels. Only a paper notice of that Sept. 17 meeting was posted, and few heard about it until after it had occurred. Subsequently, the group has been added to the Legislature’s website and the co-chairs announced that all future meetings will follow the same public procedures as other legislative interim committees and task forces.

Although the Open Meeting Law applies to the Legislature, it is enforced there through legislative rules that echo the law; courts cannot impose penalties for violations. We learned this when we sued the Legislature over closed committee meetings in 2006, in a case that relied on the Idaho Constitution, rather than the open meeting law. Since then, legislative rules have been tightened up to more directly echo the open meeting law with regard to when a legislative committee can hold an executive session.

Here is the letter we sent:

October 2, 2015

House Speaker Scott Bedke

Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill

Via email

Dear Speaker Bedke and President Pro-Tem Hill:

We are writing you today for two reasons: To thank you for the Legislature’s decision to provide full notice, streaming and openness for all future meetings of the Tax Working Group, and to express our concern that those steps weren’t taken for the Sept. 17 meeting of the group.

We know that like us, you value openness and citizen access to our state government, and that our legislature designs its processes and rules to be consistent with the principles of the Idaho Open Meeting Law and its requirements for openness. Therefore, we were concerned to learn that some apparently thought that by selecting members for the working group who make up less than a quorum of the House or Senate tax committees, open meeting considerations would be eliminated.

Instead, by creating a new group empowered to consider public business and make recommendations to the Legislature, under the open meeting law, the only quorum requirement that applies is that there be a quorum of this new group. At the Sept. 17 meeting, 11 of the 12 lawmakers appointed to the panel were present, and they were there to deliberate on an important matter of public policy: Possible changes in Idaho’s state tax system.

We hope you will keep openness in mind in any such future instances, and again, want to express our appreciation for the move to keep this new group to the same standards of openness moving forward as all other Idaho legislative task forces and interim committees

Sincerely,

Betsy Russell and Rebecca Boone

Idaho Press Club

CC: Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden