Tuesday, June 18, 2024

EDITORIAL: NIC public record block was bogus

| January 22, 2023 1:00 AM

Here’s a formal request to new Idaho Attorney General Raul Labrador to continue something his predecessor did, resulting in great public benefit.

For years, former AG Lawrence Wasden and his right-hand lawyer, Brian Kane, joined esteemed journalist Betsy Russell in taking their public records/open meetings show on the road.

Several times they came to Coeur d’Alene and, with packed houses, engaged in interactive, entertaining and exceedingly informative sessions with public officials, journalists and interested citizens.

But clearly, those lessons haven’t rubbed off on everybody. A recent reluctance to acknowledge and adhere to Idaho public record laws poses an insidious threat in both the short- and long-term.

On multiple occasions, The Press filed formal records requests for contracts detailing pay, benefits and perks of recently hired employees at North Idaho College. It is Chief Communications Officer Laura Rumpler’s responsibility to provide that information on a timely basis spelled out clearly in Idaho statutes.

Yet Rumpler argued that employment agreements for some of the new hires was not a matter of public record, and her comments were published in Press articles. She should know better, as handling public records requests is an important part of her job.

One of the higher profile local public record disputes arose in 2017, when former Coeur d'Alene School District Superintendent Matt Handelman departed under some controversy. The school district, a public education institution like NIC, refused to disclose the financial terms of his golden parachute.

The Press hired attorney John Magnuson to force the issue, and school district officials eventually relented. The school district provided a copy of Handelman's amended contract, before a formal lawsuit was pressed.

That case should have drawn Rumpler's attention, especially considering she had been the communications officer for the school district during much of Handelman's tenure.

In his request for Handelman's amended contract, Magnuson cited a 2012 public records case involving the Blackfoot School District. In that case, the school district denied requests by a citizen and a local newspaper for the separation agreement of a recently retired school superintendent. The citizen and the newspaper prevailed.

“Parties cannot exempt a public record from disclosure and hide it from the public simply by placing it in a personnel file and declaring the personnel file exemption to be applicable to it,” wrote Judge David Nye, in his decision.

In the very next legislative session, Sen. Mary Souza of Coeur d’Alene referred to the Blackfoot case when she carried a bill that expanded public record laws to ensure all manner of public employee pay, perks and benefits were transparent to the people footing the bill — basically, you, the citizens. The bill passed without a single legislator opposing.

The danger now is that other public officials watching the soap opera/Greek tragedy at NIC will assume certain pay and benefits don’t need to be disclosed when the public asks for them. And that assumption could expand to other matters spelled out in Idaho public record and open meeting laws. Look no further than NIC to see how misunderstood or misapplied open meeting laws can be.

Hence this request to AG Labrador: A little enlightenment may go a long way with some legal education locally. Maybe this time it’ll stick.