Government Should Not Be in the Business of Keeping Secrets

By A.J. Balukoff

There are some values that all Americans embrace, no matter what their political leanings, and one is this: Government must be open and accountable to the people. The bizarre and unexplained destruction of records regarding 22 of the 37 applicants to Gov. Otter’s state Board of Education, and his administration’s response to criticism of an action that may violate state statute, shows yet again that Gov. Otter does not respect the fundamental American value that government should not keep secrets from the public.

As the media has reported, 37 people applied for two open seats on the state Board of Education, an important and influential board that oversees the state’s entire public-education system, including Idaho’s 115 school districts and our colleges and universities. When Idaho Education News asked for the records regarding those applicants, they were told that 22 of those applications had been destroyed.

Why? Gov. Otter’s public records ombudsman, Cally Younger, explained that those records “contain(ed) sensitive personal information.” Yes, of course they did, as did the applications that were made public. The records made public were simply redacted to protect personal information such as driver’s license numbers. All 37 applications should have been similarly redacted and made public.

This action not only defies logic, it would appear to violate state statute, which clearly states“There is a presumption that all public records in Idaho are open at all reasonable times for inspection except as otherwise expressly provided by statute.”

State statute further stipulates: “If any public record contains material which is not exempt from disclosure as well as material which is exempt from disclosure, the public agency or independent public body corporate and politic shall, upon receipt of a request for disclosure, separate the exempt and nonexempt material and make the nonexempt material available for examination…”

And if there’s any doubt in the minds of the governor or his staff about who owns public records, this statute makes it perfectly clear: “Public records of the state and/or territory of Idaho are the property of the citizens of the state in perpetuity and they may not be improperly or unlawfully transferred or removed from their proper custodian.”

Ms. Younger, the governor’s associate counsel, was appointed earlier this year by Gov. Otter to oversee Idaho’s compliance with its own sunshine laws. Gov. Otter made a great show of this appointment, which followed a request from newspaper publishers for better government compliance with the freedom of information and public-records laws.

The Otter administration’s handling of this episode raises two questions: How committed is the governor to obeying state open-records law? And why would his administration conceal from us some applicants for a high-profile state board?

As the Magic Valley Times-News editorialized about this incident: “So, what we have here, folks, is a massive failure of oversight, a broken promise and a clear lack of commitment.”

The public has the right to know who’s seeking positions in government, and there was no legitimate reason to have destroyed those records.

Besides rebuilding our public schools and reviving our state’s struggling, minimum-wage economy, one of the main reasons I decided to run for governor was to restore accountability and trust in state government. Everywhere I go around Idaho, people of all political persuasions tell me they’re tired of the cronyism and backroom deals.

Here’s one question I will ask voters to consider come November: Do you want a state government that destroys public records without good reason?

I promise you that my administration will always maintain complete openness and compliance with our public-records law.