Journalism 101

A layperson's guide to digging up dirt

| March 16, 2005
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- Ole Cram

Welcome to Sunshine Week. This ebullient-sounding moniker has nothing to do with the record high temperatures Treasure Valley has enjoyed of late. Rather, it marks the fourth annual nationwide celebration of the linchpin of democracy: open government.

During the week of March 13, various media outlets will feature editorials and stories to drive public discussion about why open government is important to everyone. Here at BW, we've decided to provide you with a "how to" guide for accessing free government information. You can use it to kick off a career as an investigative journalist or private investigator, or just file it away for a time when you need to learn a little more about that certain suspicious employee, neighbor, public official or political agency.

Political entities

When it comes to public officials and agencies, citizens should keep in mind two essential laws that give them the right to acquire information. The first is the Idaho Public Records Law, which establishes the right of a citizen to access and copy all records maintained by state and local government entities (under federal jurisdictions, the Freedom of Information Act applies). This law helps anyone get their hands on anything that is considered a public record, from data like how well-or poorly-your child's school performs on standardized tests, to the official opinions of the attorney general or state supreme court, to the content of the mayor's notes he took over a breakfast meeting with business interests.

Like all things political, the law has some checks and balances. There are exemptions for some public records, for example, such as any document that would interfere with law enforcement proceedings.

To find out what is allowed, Dan Goicoechea of the Idaho State Controller's office recommends citizens take a "front door" approach when they want information about a public official or agency. Tell the clerk you are making a public information request for a particular piece of information. You may need to put the request in writing, as the agency you are dealing with may-but by law does not have to-require it. Just remember: At no point during the process are you required to tell anyone why you want the information you seek.

Under the category of ultimate irony, your request is also technically a public document. So, the official or agency you are seeking information about can in turn find out who is seeking information about them. If you have questions about the process, contact the State Controller's office at 700 W. State St., or by calling 334-3100.

The second law enabling citizens to follow government proceedings is the Idaho Open Meeting Law. Essentially, this piece of legislation requires that public bodies-such as City Councils, school boards and most legislative committees-conduct their business and make their decisions in public.

This law allows citizens to attend meetings, but also requires political bodies to keep minutes and voting records on the subjects they broach. This information is almost always public record and can usually be found online at the agency's Web site or in hardcopy at the agency itself.

Some matters, such as pending litigation and potential real estate purchases, are allowed to be conducted in closed session, since the public's interest is-arguably-best served when discussions on these matters are kept confidential. However, political bodies must make their final decision on these matters in an open meeting. When in doubt about being excluded from the discussion, refer to the Idaho Press Club's instructions on how to object to a closed meeting, at www.idahopressclub.org/object.htm.

A citizen's right to make comment on public matters is often exercised at open meetings. Making public comment epitomizes the spirit of open government, but citizens must remember some key points when exercising free speech rights.

First of all, your comments are public record and will show up in the minutes. Don't go into a session assuming what you say is just between you and the board. Second, public bodies typically set time limits (often three minutes) on public speakers, as otherwise meetings would never end. Don't be offended by this. If you need more time, ask that you be granted a reasonable extension. If there is a line of speakers behind you, don't get your hopes up. But when no such line exists, point that out to the political body you are approaching and ask the chairperson for the extension.

There is, however, a potential loophole to these proceedings that less experienced chairpersons may not catch. If two speakers plan to comment on the same subject, one of the speakers can yield part of their time to the other speaker. This could result in five minutes of talking time as opposed to a curt three. Again, don't get your hopes up, but if you're desperate, it's worth a try.

To download a manual on public record and open meeting laws, visit the Attorney General's Web site at www.ag.idaho.gov. Click on the "publications" link and then click on the "pamphlets and legal manuals" link.

Criminals

Thanks to the tireless efforts of victims, their families and lawmakers, finding information about sex offenders in Idaho is quite easy. The Idaho State Police's Web site (www.isp.state.id.us.identification/sex_offender) offers a database accessible in several ways. First, the site contains a general search feature where one can enter the name, birth date, zip code or even county of a questionable person. There are also lists of offenders (and their city of residence) who have failed to register. Finally, the site contains both photos and home addresses of violent sex offenders.

For those worried about violent offenders of the non-sexual kind, getting specific information is not as easy. In this instance, citizens are advised to do a background check on the person they worry about.

To get the ball rolling, contact the Idaho State Police Criminal History Unit at (208) 884-7130 or visit their Web site to download background check forms.

Miscellaneous

The amount of public records you have the right to access is far too vast for a single article to convey. However, a number of excellent Web sites are devoted entirely to informing citizens-and often for little or no cost. One excellent site for learning about public records is www.searchsystem.net, which contains links to government sites where everything from sanitation violations by barbers, to unclaimed financial assets, to the statuses of corporate entities are viewable in seconds. Others, like www.privateeye.com or www.knowx.com, will charge a tidy sum for the legwork of gathering records that make up a personal or corporate background check. Just exploring these sites, however, will teach a curious citizen plenty about the types of info available. Have fun fishing.

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