From the Winter 2003 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 30.
By Gil Shochat
The Idaho Supreme Court ruled in November that The (Twin Falls) Times-News should have access to salary records of the Magic Valley Regional Medical Center, a public hospital in Twin Falls, Idaho.
Because Idaho courts traditionally have found against those seeking access to government data, the decision surprised media in Idaho.
“The Open Records Act in Idaho is as conservative or even more conservative than are Idaho politics,” said Bob C. Hall, executive director of the Idaho News Association. “There has traditionally been an indifference in our courts to open records and a bias towards institutional security and privacy needs that have always outweighed the public’s need to know in this state.”
“We never saw the Supreme Court of Idaho rule this quickly, only 10 days after hearing arguments. This was an easy decision for the court to make,” said G. Richard Bevan, attorney for the Times-News in this case.
“Had the legislature intended to exempt employees’ names from disclosure, it would have expressly so provided,” the supreme court ruled.
The court also held that “[f]or personnel information that is subject to disclosure to have any meaning at all, the name of the involved officials and applicants also must be disclosed.”
The court added that it was not the legislature’s intent to “rewrite” Idaho’s access to information laws and force the release of the personnel information.
The Times-News initially wanted to examine employee salaries to search for questionable financial dealings at the hospital.
“We asked for this information so we could look into nepotism and double dipping [so we could be . . . ] able to really examine what’s going on with the hospital’s payroll,” said Clark Walworth, editor of the Times-News.
The newspaper became interested in the information after noticing that the payroll rose by 25 percent from 2001 to 2002. According to a September 2001 editorial in the newspaper, the newspaper sued after the “hospital refused to budge” on releasing information requested in the Times-News’s Idaho Open Records Act request.
The newspaper’s suspicions piqued after the hospital backed legislation in the state Senate that would have sealed employee salaries at publicly owned hospitals.
“Salary information provides insight into how well an enterprise is being managed . . . [payroll information is] useful when evaluating the hospital’s financial management,” the Times-News wrote in an August 2001 editorial.
A “line in the sand” was drawn once the information was held back from the newspaper. “We could not just walk away from this, because then other public officials would have started withholding information from us, as well,” Walworth said.
“We didn’t find any smoking guns. This did not turn into an expose. We were able to find some very interesting insights about trends and market forces behind the rising salaries,” Walworth said. “We found that salaries are very high as compared to what people earn in this part of Idaho. But those salaries are not excessive when seen in the broader context of the health care industry.”
What getting the information also did, Walworth added, was “give local readers perspective on national health care phenomena and open a window into the health care economy that most people don’t understand very well.”
The Idaho News Association’s Hall credits his organization’s efforts and the solid presentation of the newspaper’s attorneys for the good decision.
Others don’t see the decision as a trend toward greater government access.
“Unfortunately, this is an isolated
decision. The court merely read the statute and applied it. Agencies are increasingly applying roadblocks to releasing records and most people cannot sue. More and more records seem harder to get,” Bevan said. (Magic Valley Newspapers Inc. v. Magic Valley Regional Medical Center)