Bonner County Notes Sunshine Week By Hiding Public Records
Sunshine week is an annual awareness campaign organized by the American Association of News Editors and sponsored by dozens of impressive organizations interested in open and transparent government. The week is intended to draw attention to open records laws and open meetings laws that can be used in the public interest. Indeed, open government is a remarkable and necessary feature of our democracy, and something organizations like ours depend on for our efforts to protect the environment.
Recall that in our continuing effort to monitor the Bonner County Property Rights Council, Kootenai Environmental Alliance made a request for documents relating to this bizarre article, calling the PRC a weapon in the fight against the U.N. – which was more proof to us that a national ideological campaign is being waged from the inner offices of Bonner County government. We were interested in how this article came about, and on February 8th, we requested emails between the Bonner County officials and the individuals associated with and mentioned in the article.
According to an email from Bonner County Assistant Prosecutor and PRC adviser Scott Bauer, “[Commissioner] Cornel [Rasor] and I have had personal contacts … only in our personal capacity on our own time and not purporting in anyway to represent the County. This is our prerogative as private citizens and Idaho’s Public Records Act does not entitle the public to the private communications of public officials especially given that these communications were channeled through our private email accounts.”
This just didn’t ring true to us. Obviously, they didn’t seem like private communications to us — these were public officials in their public capacity talking about Bonner County’s public business in a public forum. Just channeling them through private accounts doesn’t immunize these communications from Idaho’s Public Records Act.
Just to be sure, we made a request of the applicable computer use policies for Bonner County. And late on Friday afternoon (an obnoxious and bi-partisan document-dump tradition) we received the Bonner County Computer Use Policy (pdf) Sure enough, the policy originally adopted in 2005 says, in bold print even:
“Users have no right to privacy with regard to their use of county computer system and computers, including the use of email and the internet, unless that privacy is protected by law (attorney client confidentiality, HIPAA, etc.)”
But hold on, there’s more. Appended to the policy is another document “Commissioner Computer Use Policy — Exceptions to County Computer Use Policy.” ( A similar “exception” document pertaining to the Prosecutor’s office was also appended.) The exception states the following:
“Commissioners shall have the right to privacy with regard to their incidental personal computer use of the county computer system, software, computers, and other electronic devices. A reasonable expectation of privacy shall attach to the incidental personal use of such equipment for document storage, email and the internet. These privacy protections shall extend to the maximum permitted by State or Federal law.
These rights to privacy attach only to purely personal records not pertaining to the conduct of public business. Commissioners are encouraged to store their personal private records on a flash drive or a folder clearly identified as personal. These purely personal records are not subject to county records retention requirements and shall not be deemed to be disclosable under the Idaho Public Records Act as purely personal non-public records.”
Wait, what? Then this “exception” isn’t a part of an original policy from 2005.
Indeed, this was a brand new exception, apparently adopted by the Board on February 14th of this year (pdf minutes, on page 5). Almost a week AFTER our request.
So, what exactly is Bonner County hiding?