It was 25 years ago… Idaho public records law celebrates 25th anniversary

By Betsy Russell

Twenty-five years ago this year, the Idaho Legislature passed the Idaho Public Records Act and it was signed into law by Gov. Cecil Andrus.
This year, we are celebrating a quarter-century of our state’s having a comprehensive public records act on the books, declaring unequivocally that “every person has a right to examine and take a copy of any public record of this state and 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.”

Prior to passage of the law, the Idaho Supreme Court had held in 1984, in Dalton vs. Idaho Dairy Products Commission, that public records are presumed open unless there’s a specific law closing them. The Public Records Act codified that into state law.

The late Allen Derr, writing in an Idahoanian newspaper column in September of 1989, wrote that after the Dalton decision, agencies took note. “New exemptions sprouted faster than zucchini,” Derr wrote. “Sensing chaos, Idaho’s media groups went to work.”

The Idaho Press Club, the Idaho Allied Dailies, the Idaho Newspaper Association and other media groups were involved; so were numerous lawmakers, state agencies and state officials. The Press Club led the way, under the guidance of President Joan Cartan. After various competing proposals failed to pass in the 1989 legislative session – including proposals for a public records commission and for a state Inspector General – a joint interim committee was appointed, chaired by Sen. Skip Smyser, R-Parma, and Rep. Don Loveland, R-Boise.

Cartan worked hard for an effective new Idaho public records law, along with many others.  A side note: Young TV reporter Joan Cartan was pushing for the new law; young state Sen. Jim Hansen served on the interim committee, and was a co-sponsor of the bill. Love blossomed, and later, the two married.

In 1990, the bill became law. It included 36 exemptions, and repealed more than 100 existing exemptions from public disclosure that were scattered throughout Idaho’s state laws.

“Rather than follow the federal Freedom of Information Act model in which a small number of exemptions are loosely defined, with the parameters of the exemptions left to agency regulations and judicial interpretation, the Idaho Legislature chose to identify the actual types of records exempt from public disclosure with a greater degree of specificity,” according to an article in the 2011 Open Government Guide of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press authored by Idaho attorney Deb Kristensen. “In attempting to draw more black and white lines, instead of fewer gray lines, the Legislature hoped to reduce the number of disputes over public records.”

Many additional exemptions have been added since; there are now more than 90, divided into seven categories, from medical records to trade secrets. However, the basic tenets of the law – the presumption of openness, the specific procedure for requests for records, and the requirement for prompt responses – have stood the test of time.

“Today’s Idaho Public Records Act represents a comprehensive statutory treatment of an important tool of public knowledge about the workings of government,” Kristensen wrote. “The act opens many doors and file drawers which previously had been opened only at the whim and caprice of public officials.”

As Allen Derr wrote in that column back in 1989, which was entitled, “Public records should be an open-and-shut case,” “All of this is really important to you. Denial of information is censorship.”

Betsy Russell is a Boise-based reporter for The Spokesman-Review, and is the current president of the Idaho Press Club.