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Assessor withdraws massive public records request

by KAYE THORNBRUGH
Staff Writer | December 13, 2023 1:09 AM

COEUR d’ALENE — Kootenai County Assessor Béla Kovacs has withdrawn public record requests submitted to the treasurer’s office that were expected to generate many tens of thousands of documents and cost more than $20,000 in employee labor to fulfill.

Last week, Kovacs submitted a public records request to the treasurer’s office, seeking all emails, written correspondence and reports issued or received between April 1 and Dec. 6.

Kovacs also sought all correspondence between the treasurer’s office and the assessor’s office, as well as any communications between the treasurer’s office and the office of the county commissioners between Jan. 1, 2022, and Dec. 6 of this year.

Kootenai County Treasurer Steve Matheson brought the matter before commissioners Tuesday, saying he intended to charge Kovacs for the request before his office fulfilled it, as permitted under state law, and that commissioners should expect Kovacs to ask the board to foot the bill.

“I have tried to help Béla clarify and narrow his request,” Matheson told commissioners. “Unfortunately, he has only expanded it. Either Béla doesn’t understand the Idaho public records law or he is intentionally placing this financial burden onto the county and its taxpayers.”

Kovacs told commissioners the sweeping public records requests were part of an effort to root out “systemic issues” at the county that caused problems like a recent $53 million property tax value assessment error that affected seven taxing districts.

“I do have concerns about some reoccurring issues and problems and so I’m looking for information to be able to tackle that,” Kovacs said. “That was the origin and the reason for my making the request.”

The assessor has blamed other county departments, including the treasurer’s office and commissioners, for the error and requested last month that the Idaho State Tax Commission investigate Kootenai County’s work processes as a result.

Some county officials, including Commissioner Bill Brooks, contend that Kovacs is trying to foist responsibility for his own office’s mistakes onto other departments.

Just one of Kovacs’ requests had 49,779 responsive emails, Matheson said, some of which contained information about personnel matters, litigation or other material exempt from release under Idaho’s public records laws.

“Béla is already the custodian of many of these emails, yet he is directing the request to the treasurer’s office,” Matheson said.

The emails would need to be reviewed in order to avoid releasing information exempt from disclosure under Idaho's public records law, Matheson said, which would cost at least $20,741 in employee labor. That estimation doesn’t include any additional legal review that may be necessary.

Kovacs suggested Matheson had misrepresented the nature and scope of his request in Tuesday’s meeting.

“I did not request 50,000 emails,” Kovacs said. “I made a general statement in my request and had I had the opportunity to have a conversation to the extent of the information I am now learning, certainly I would’ve altered it.”

After Matheson noted that Kovacs was the custodian of some of the records he had requested and asked for clarification about the other requests, Kovacs accused the treasurer of trying to stifle an investigation.

“I have alerted the AG’s office of your apparent attempts to intervene, narrow, direct or control the investigation,” Kovacs wrote Dec. 7. “I caution you from extending any further similar efforts as outright attempts or which can otherwise be construed as efforts to interfere with an investigation.”

Kovacs told commissioners he didn’t reach out to the treasurer’s office before submitting the requests. He agreed Tuesday to withdraw the request and instead meet with Matheson to discuss the matter.

“My objective is that we work together mutually to find out what the systemic problems are,” he said.