Tracking code caldwell guardian

Monday, August 16, 2010

Idaho Ranked 48th For Govt. Transparency

Gag orders, secret deals hurt confidence in our government

 Monday, August 16, 2010 by Wayne Hoffman

Government agencies that promote a culture of secrecy might think they’re doing something clever and necessary by keeping sensitive issues under wraps. But instead, all they’re really doing is breeding distrust and suspicion.

Two recent examples of government secrecy stand out. They’re by no means unique, only recent.

In July, the city of Caldwell signed an agreement with a subdivision developer that forces the city to pay $500,000 to settle a lawsuit. The settlement includes a clause that has become all too common in some cases, noting that “terms and conditions of this settlement agreement are strictly confidential.”

“The parties promise not to discuss or disclose the terms and conditions of the settlement agreement to anyone, with the exception of legally permitted or required communications with their attorney, tax advisor or as otherwise required for tax or related reporting requirements,” the settlement says.

That means anyone with the word “tax” in their title gets to know about the settlement except for the taxpayer. For the taxpayer to know about the agreement, he or she has to outfox the fox and find out about it, as was the case with Caldwell watchdog Paul Alldredge, who uncovered the super-secret deal.

Such an agreement makes a mockery out of the state’s public records law, which says deals like the one signed by Caldwell are a matter of public record, disclosure and discourse. Slapping the word “confidential” on the agreement doesn’t change that; it’s only designed to make it harder for people to find out about it.

In Pocatello, Idaho State University leaders have empanelled a committee to review faculty governing structures at the school. But the university has required each committee member to sign a confidentiality agreement.

The agreement says, “I acknowledge that my participation in the meetings of the Advisory Group on Faculty Governance Committee is done under conditions of strict confidentiality and that I will not share or discuss the discussions had, presentations made, or any materials presented or distributed with anyone not on this committee.”

I’ve been involved in government watchdog work in one form or another for more than 20 years, and I’ve never seen something as far-reaching as this. To tell government employees that they’re utterly forbidden from discussing items that are a matter of public record and are of concern and interest to faculty and students, parents and taxpayers is amazing and outrageous.

Mike Ellis, an ISU professor, correctly pointed out in a letter to ISU’s leadership that the agreement “unfortunately gives your group the appearance of a lack of transparency.”

Very true. But the policy is consistent with a university that recently shut the media out of a meeting of a parking advisory committee and then claimed it was within its rights to do so. Transparency is apparently not ISU’s strong suit.

The public has the right to know what’s going on in the halls of government, and confidentiality agreements and mandatory gag orders do nothing to boost confidence in our elected officials, their subordinates or the public policies they’re charged with executing. It makes us wonder what else we’re not being told — and why.

• Wayne Hoffman is the executive director of the Idaho Freedom Foundation. E-mail him at

1 comment:

A public discourse on the issues of the day makes the world a better place.

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