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For Sunshine Week Consider Creating an Open Government Ombudsman

Happy National Sunshine Week!

No, I’m not talking about the weather getting better and days getting longer but the time of year that Americans across the country celebrate the importance of open government laws to protect our right to know what public officials are doing on our behalf. One reform that we’d like to see across the mountain states in honor of Sunshine Week is the creation of an Open Government Ombudsman.

This type of citizen-focused open government expert would help reduce the possibility of litigation when a public records dispute occurs. A similar concept is currently used in Connecticut. That state uses a Freedom of Information Commission to help mediate access to public records.

An Open Government Ombudsman would be helpful for all states. Consider the following cloudy example standing in the way of the full sunlight of transparency in Idaho. The Idaho Education News has been in an ongoing public records dispute with the University of Idaho.

A January 17 blog post notes:

"We adamantly believe public records belong to the people of Idaho, who shouldn't have to pay for what belongs to them," said Jennifer Swindell, managing editor with Idaho Education News.  "We ask for documents that are in the public interest, because taxpayers deserve to know how their money is spent.” 

The media outlet originally received a $2,400 public records invoice from the University of Idaho.

Swindell recently told me:

“I've been a reporter and editor for more than 40 years and I've never paid for a public record — until now — $88.65 to the University of Idaho. And it's especially egregious for us to be invoiced by the University of Idaho, which has a staff of lawyers and is supported on hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars. Idaho needs an independent review because too often we dispute the actions of state agencies either denying our request, over-redacting or delaying the release of public records and we have no recourse other than to go to court, which isn't realistic.

Strong open government laws are critical to a well-functioning republic and ensuring public accountability. Along with creating an Open Government Ombudsman, there are a couple of other easy reforms lawmakers could enact to help make the legislative process more transparent.

To help maximize public involvement in their governance, lawmakers should amend their rules to require at least 3-day public notice of the bills to be heard at public hearings. Providing advance notice of bills scheduled for public hearings is a standard practice among neighboring states. This type of public notice is necessary to allow for meaningful involvement by citizens in the bill hearing process. All legislative committees should also provide the option for remote testimony.

We discussed these legislative transparency ideas before the session started with Idaho Reports (click on the image for video of the interview).

Idaho's Public Records Law Manual clearly explains:

“Open government is the cornerstone of a free society.

Idaho’s constitution proclaims:

“All political power is inherent in the people.”

The foundations for an accountable government can be found in strong citizen oversight, and one of the most critical tools to achieve this is open government laws. For National Sunshine Week we encourage lawmakers to adopt legislative transparency reforms and consider creating an Open Government Ombudsman to help reduce the likelihood of litigation and to improve the administration of state open government laws.

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