An Idaho County denied reporters’ records requests. A judge called the denials ‘troubling’
Nicole Blanchard, Idaho Statesman
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An Idaho judge sided in favor of local journalists who said Ada County did not properly comply with public records requests, ordering the county to release the withheld information and chastising officials for “frivolously” and “improperly” denying those requests.
In a court decision dated Dec. 12, the Idaho Statesman reports Fourth District Judge Deborah Bail said Ada County was in the wrong when it denied Idaho Public Records Act requests from Boise journalists, including two Idaho Statesman reporters. The county must also cover the Idaho Press Club’s court costs.
“Ada County’s approach to handling the Idaho Public Records Act requests in this case was troubling,” Bail wrote. “The Act favors timeliness, narrow exclusions and openness; Ada County’s approach emphasized delay, unsupportable interpretations of privilege and secrecy. Ada County not only did not follow the Idaho Public Records Act, it acted as though different Act had been enacted — a reverse image of Idaho law.”
The Idaho Press Club filed the lawsuit earlier this year on behalf of Statesman reporters Cynthia Sewell and Katy Moeller, Idaho Education News editor Jennifer Swindell and Idaho Public Television reporter Melissa Davlin, who also serves as the First Amendment Committee chairwoman for the press club.
The lawsuit alleged that Ada County violated the Idaho Public Records Act several times when it exceeded the appropriate timeline to respond to a request from the reporters, redacted or refused to release public information and attempted to charge the reporters fees that Bail later determined did not meet statutory requirements.
In September, Ada County officials asked Bail to dismiss the lawsuit, claiming that each journalist must file suit individually.
RECORDS DENIALS WERE ‘FRIVOLOUS,’ IDAHO JUDGE SAYS
In her decision, Bail said Ada County was in the wrong in all but one case — in which former Statesman reporter Moeller requested records from a 911 call made in a downtown scooter accident. Bail said Moeller’s request was not made through the formal procedure agencies may require.
The denials in the other three cases were “frivolous,” Bail wrote. At times, the county denied records or redacted information based on attorney-client privilege, deliberative process privilege and other terms that did not apply, the judge said.
“No public agency is free to create its own Public Records Act,” Bail wrote. “Vague, over-reaching denials for ‘Personnel’ or ‘Privacy’ without citing the Act’s specific personnel or privacy protections is not permissible.”
Bail ordered Ada County to release all but a few of the records to the journalists, saying the county’s refusal to provide public records on the basis of privacy “is so lacking in good faith that it is striking.”
The judge also lambasted county officials for their lack of timeliness in responding to the requests. According to Idaho’s public records law, requests must be granted or denied within three working days from when the request is received. If it will take longer to fulfill the request, the public agency must notify the requester of the delay and reach a “mutually agreed upon” extension.
In one instance, it took county officials nearly two months to inform Sewell in a letter that a lawyer would look at the requested documents.
“The clear implication of the letter is that holding one’s breath for a response could be fatal,” Bail wrote.
Davlin told the Associated Press that the ruling marks “a great day for government transparency in Idaho.”
“I’m hoping that other government entities are paying attention, because Ada County certainly wasn’t the only one that had public records practices outside the law,” Davlin said. “So, hopefully this ruling means we can avoid these fights in the future.”
Read the entire ruling here.