Good news, bad news: State government to appoint a public records ombudsman

Good news, bad news: State government to appoint a public records ombudsman

by
Wayne Hoffman
April 30, 2014
Wayne Hoffman
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April 30, 2014

Earlier this year, I asked the state Department of Agriculture for some budget information. The agency's response: Give us a public records request and we might get that information to you.

I mention the Department of Agriculture issue to note that there's nothing wrong, really, with Gov. Butch Otter's decision to appoint a public records ombudsman. There’s nothing fantastic about it either.

The ombudsman, according to the governor's executive order announcing the position, would provide people a place to vent about agency decisions to deny public records requests, thus providing people with one last opportunity to get the records they want prior to going to court, the only remedy available under state law. But the ombudsman will be reviewing the decisions of agencies that work, basically, for the governor. A gubernatorial ombudsman doesn't strike me as being a really impartial observer.

Additionally, there's no doubt that people have problems getting records out of state agencies, and much of that is a function of Idaho's cumbersome public records law and agencies that have built barriers to getting even basic information. My experience with the Department of Agriculture is a case in point. In 25 years doing this work, I've never, ever had to file a public records request to get budget information. But the Otter administration's Department of Agriculture, where I worked from 2005-06, views public information differently than I do. The agency makes it harder, not easier, to acquire records.

An ombudsman isn't the answer, although perhaps it will help highlight the question: Why is it is so darned hard in the 21st century to get basic information from Idaho government?

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