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Idaho Legislature: Closed meetings have no place today

Statesman Editorial board
January 15, 2013
Idaho Statesman

It's time for the Idaho Legislature to eliminate those closed-door caucus meetings. The timing for taking such action has rarely been better.

Secret sessions simply are not necessary in today's Legislature, and they add nothing to the process but suspicion and mistrust. In this day of texts, tweets and emails, closed caucus meetings are as outdated as rotary telephones.

So kick the habit and get rid of them. Abolishing closed-door sessions would send the right message at a time when lawmakers are paying more attention to applying higher standards to themselves. Lawmakers gathered last week for ethics training, a first in Idaho and hopefully not a last.

The personalities are in place to make it happen. House Speaker Scott Bedke and Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill are capable leaders, but they are not - and don't pretend to be - party bosses. On the Democratic side, Rep. John Rusche and Sen. Michelle Stennett are congenial people who hardly fit the profile of arm-twisters.

Over the years, legislators have given a lot of reasons (more like excuses) for having closed-door sessions. The meetings have been viewed as an opportunity for legislators to gather in a relaxed setting, let their hair down and say what's on their minds without worrying about being quoted by pesky reporters. There have been times in Idaho's history when leaders used closed sessions to bring caucus members in line on certain issues.

The landscape is much different from the days of smoke-filled rooms. Top leaders have many ways to make their views clear on issues, including old-fashioned press releases and guest editorials. As for the rank-and-file members, they vote the way they want and are not shy about expressing their views through social networks and other outlets. Today's legislators generally don't respond well to edicts, threats or party discipline. Judging by the participation at the ethics-training session (Bedke made it clear that attendance was mandatory), there's more sensitivity these days to issues of public trust and accountability.

Idaho politicians have had their share of dark moments over the years, including Sen. Monty Pearce's failure to disclose his oil interests before voting on new laws governing the petroleum industry; former Sen. John McGee's escapades with drinking and inappropriate conduct with a staffer, and allegations of sexual harassment; former Rep. Phil Hart's refusal to pay taxes; and U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo's recent drunken driving arrest. Last year, the Senate State Affairs Committee created another embarrassment by refusing to even consider legislation brought forth by supporters of the "Add the Words" campaign.

Former Iowa State Rep. Scott Raecker, who spoke at the ethics session, challenged Idaho lawmakers to "raise the bar" on ethical standards and have the courage to break from tradition in the effort to promote an atmosphere of trust and accountability.

Republican and Democratic leaders in Idaho should answer that challenge and abolish those outdated secret meetings.

"Our View" is the editorial position of the Idaho Statesman. It is an unsigned opinion expressing the consensus of the Statesman's editorial board. To comment on an editorial or suggest a topic, email editorial@idahostatesman.com.


Originally posted at http://www.idahostatesman.com/2013/01/15/2412508/closed-meetings-have-no-place.html

The editorial posted here is provided by permission of its original publisher and does not necessarily reflect the views of Idaho Public Television.

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