What we learned from the records we got in the Ada County lawsuit

By Melissa Davlin

Judge Deborah Bail’s decision in our lawsuit against Ada County over its illegal public records practices didn’t just admonish the attorneys responsible for breaking Idaho’s public records laws. It also ordered the county to turn over the unredacted documents the Idaho Press Club, Idaho Statesman and Idaho Education News had requested.

And now, because we sued on behalf of Press Club members, we are turning the documents over to you for reporting purposes, along with this summary of our findings and a timeline of key events.

You can find all of the documents here: https://drive.google.com/drive/u/0/folders/1dd_2sBeZRHaYHxSp0cEdIE8s7kGGLwiw

Remember, this fight started because of Ada County’s delay in fulfilling a public records request from Idaho Statesman reporter Cynthia Sewell. Ada County took about 40 business days to fulfill that original request over documents related to the sale or lease of Les Bois Park. In court, the county’s attorney, James Dickinson, repeatedly claimed an IT issue was responsible for the delay.

After carefully reading the documents, two main points stand out: There are a number of discrepancies with Ada County’s claim that a technical glitch caused the delay, and Ada County Prosecuting Attorney Jan Bennetts’ office was directly involved with indefinitely delaying the response.

Some highlights:

-Emails show employees in the Ada County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office didn’t reach out to the county IT department to begin the search until March 4, ten business days after Sewell’s original Feb. 15 request. Idaho Code allows for three days to respond to a request, with a maximum of a 10-day extension.

-Ada County Prosecuting Attorney Jan Bennetts provided the wording used in letters sent by office manager Judy Morris to Sewell to indefinitely delay response to the original request, beginning on March 4. Bennetts’ office continued to insist in those letters that the indefinite delay was within the boundaries of the law — which, as the Idaho Press Club and Judge Bail pointed out, isn’t true.

-There is no mention of a technical glitch in any communications between attorneys and the IT department. Instead, emails discuss whether the record search “slipped through the cracks,” with one employee writing “I am the problem” in reference to the delay a month after Sewell’s original request.

-After a check-in from Sewell in late March, attorneys again instructed Morris to indefinitely delay response. Again, there is no explanation or mention of a technical glitch until Morris sent a final letter with a cost quote on April 5, after Sewell went public with her complaint against Ada County on social media.

-In a September 25 declaration to the court related to the lawsuit, Ada County IT Director Stephen O’Meara claimed a similar request to Sewell’s masked her request in the public records request system, and an IT upgrade delayed searches for a week. There is no mention in these records of any IT issues or upgrades, and the attorneys assigned to Sewell’s request didn’t follow up with O’Meara about the search until late March, after Sewell checked in.

-In the same time period as the supposed technical glitch, Ada County responded to a number of other public records requests. There is no mention of IT-related delays in communications between the county and requesters in these records.

While it is possible there was, in fact, an IT issue that wasn’t mentioned in these records, O’Meara’s statement that it delayed record searches for a week doesn’t account for the entire 40-day delay. It also doesn’t explain why the attorneys in question acknowledged their role in the delay in their own emails, nor why they didn’t notify Sewell of the IT issue until April.

Please feel free to use these documents for your own reporting. This summary and timeline has been compiled by Idaho Press Club vice president and 1st Amendment Committee chairwoman Melissa Davlin, who is available for interviews or to answer questions.

Melissa Davlin is a reporter, producer and host at Idaho Public Television, is the vice president of the Idaho Press Club, and chairs the club’s 1st Amendment Committee. She can be reached at (208) 410-7239.