Some of our public records requests are being ignored or postponed — illegally

Editor’s note: This blog will be updated occasionally to communicate with our readers the most delinquent responses to our public records requests, and their final outcomes.

We make requests for public records on a regular basis.

The public records we ask for don’t belong to a university, school district, board of trustees or an individual — they belong to the public.

We do this not to be bothersome to attorneys or clerks, but to hold lawmakers and educators accountable for taxpayer dollars and their binding decisions. We need to see the paperwork.

And the custodians of public records are required to give it to us in compliance with an Idaho law titled “transparent and ethical government,” which states:

  • A public agency or custodian shall either grant or deny a person’s request to examine or copy public records within three (3) working days;
  • or, if it is determined that a longer period of time is needed to locate or retrieve the public records, the public agency shall provide the public records no later than ten (10) working days.

Some of our requests for public records are being ignored or postponed — illegally.

Our best defense is to write about it. So I’m starting a blog today to shine a light on some public figures’ reactions to our requests.

University of Idaho

Legislators have raised serious questions about the University of Idaho’s $685 million plan to purchase the University of Phoenix, but weeks before that, we made a May 24 request for public documents relating to the purchase.

We did not get a response to our request in three days, as is required by law.

Instead, acting U of I General Counsel Kent E. Nelson wrote to us in an email that his staff is “stretched very thin” and “I regret the time this is taking and I request your patience.” He also went on to explain he’s leaving the country for travel and he’ll get back to us upon his return.

The U of I, which has an annual budget of over $220 million and a handful of attorneys on staff, should not get a pass for complying with the law because someone went on vacation.

Nelson also tried to buy my patience. He said the university requires payment for public records but as an “accommodation for your patience” someone — while he’s on vacation — has started gathering the records we requested and we will not be required to pay. But will others who show less patience have to pay?

It’s rare for a taxpayer funded university, with a staff of lawyers, to charge for public records. In fact, we’ve never paid for a public record to a university, college, district or charter.

I’ve asked the U of I for its billing policy on Monday. I’ve not heard back. I also sent an email to president’s and general council offices insisting that our requests be fulfilled within a legal timeframe. I’ve not heard back from either.

West Bonner School District

In light of the recent controversy surrounding the West Bonner school board’s superintendent pick, we asked acting board clerk Steffie Pavey for an email sent from the board chair Keith Rutledge to the other four trustees. She at first told us the email did not exist. But I saw a copy of it. To verify its authenticity, I needed an original copy from the district. We challenged her and she responded by sending a letter stating we’d have to wait 10 days for the email, even though no time is needed for her to “locate or retrieve” the email. We’re still waiting, and trustees continue their work without being held accountable for conversations happening outside of public view.

We also asked Pavey for emails between trustees and their chosen candidate to serve as superintendent, Branden Durst, and a document that was being shared with three trustees and not the other two during the June 14 meeting.  Pavey gave us another 10-day letter, saying we’d have to wait for a document that should take just minutes to retrieve.

The trustees are meeting tonight and the agenda has changed at least three times. At one point, the agenda said the trustees would “self-cure,” a practice used by boards when they break open meeting laws. They redo or vote again on an action they previously voted on illegally.  In this case, the agenda mentioned a “separation agreement” — a public document we’ve asked for but have not been given. But now that action item is no longer on the agenda.

What is on the agenda is this: “POTENTIAL ACTION: Executive Session – Consideration & Approval of Personnel Matters.” The vague language replaces a specific item that was on the original agenda, posted Friday: “Consideration & Approval of Superintendent Contract and Addendum.”

But Idaho law is clear: “no executive session may be held for the purpose of taking any final action or making any final decision.”

It’s confusing for us and patrons and lacks transparency.

Our reporter Carly Flandro will watch the meeting tonight if the district continues to provide live streaming as it has done recently — and publish a story on their actions.

Bonner County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office

We filed a formal complaint with the Bonner County prosecuting attorney’s office asking if West Bonner trustees broke Idaho’s open meeting laws when they agreed to “accept the amount” of money to give their departing superintendent.

The amount was never made public, and when we asked board clerk Steffie Pavey for a copy of a separation agreement, she told us one did not exist.

So when did trustees decide on a dollar amount? Where’s the record of it? They didn’t do it during an open meeting, which is why I asked the prosecutor if this was an open meeting violation.

  • Idaho’s Open Meeting Act does not prohibit qualified deliberations in executive session, but says “no executive session may be held for the purpose of taking any final action or making any final decision.”

Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Scott Bauer responded to my complaint in an email: “The public entity can be thin on detail to some extent, but should provide public records pursuant to a public records request that provide more detail related to the decision.”

Is a taxpayer’s financial obligation a “thin” detail?

It’s been a week and we still don’t know the amount.

Jennifer Swindell

Jennifer Swindell

Managing editor and CEO Jennifer Swindell founded Idaho Education News in 2013. She has led the online news platform as it has grown in readership and engagement every year, reaching over two million pageviews a year. Jennifer has more than 35 years of experience in Idaho journalism. She also has served as a public information officer for Idaho schools and as a communication director at Boise State University. She can be reached at [email protected].

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