The Billings Gazette sued Southern Montana Electric Cooperative on Monday, seeking to prevent it from holding closed meetings.
The complaint, filed in Yellowstone County, seeks to void all actions taken during Southern’s closed meeting June 18, including the decision to close the meeting; a declaration that Southern’s board meetings are subject to Montana’s open meeting law; and a preliminary injunction preventing Southern from closing its meeting while the issue is pending.
The court action comes after three closed Southern board meetings — on March 19, May 20 and most recently, last Friday. On June 17, The Gazette asked that Southern hold an open meeting.
Southern CEO Tim Gregori said last Friday the board passed a resolution stating that Southern, with or without The Gazette’s involvement, would seek a declaratory order from the courts on what constitutes a public meeting.
Neither Gregori nor Southern’s attorney, Jon Doak, could be reached for comment Monday.
On Friday, Southern barred eight people and a Gazette reporter from attending its meeting. The group included members of the Beartooth Electric Cooperative in south-central Montana and a Great Falls resident. Beartooth and the city of Great Falls are members of Southern.
The Gazette’s attorney, Martha Sheehy, said in the complaint that Southern is subject to Montana’s open meeting law because it is supported “in whole or in part by public funds” or expends public funds. The Gazette has “a legitimate interest in the actions of the Board, both as a newsgathering business in the region and as a representative of the public,” the complaint said.
Southern is the parent cooperative of several cooperatives and was formed with the intent of building the Highwood Generating Station, a gas-fired power plant near Great Falls. Electric City Power of Great Falls joined Southern and has invested more than $1 million, the complaint said.
In an April 16 opinion, Great Falls City Attorney James Santoro said he had determined that Southern is an organization that receives and spends public money and is therefore subject to Montana’s open meeting law.