Meetings of the Southern Montana Electric Cooperative should be open to the public because it accepted public money from a public entity when it received $2 million from the city of Great Falls, an attorney for The Billings Gazette argued in court Wednesday.

Southern's attorney, John Ross, argued that the meetings are not subject to the Montana Open Meeting Law because it is not a public entity or organization and that the money from Great Falls is not public money.

State District Judge Susan Watters heard the arguments in a lawsuit The Gazette filed in June seeking to prevent Southern from closing its meetings.

Attorney Martha Sheehy, representing The Gazette, said Montana's open-meetings law provides that all meetings of public or governmental bodies “or organizations or agencies supported in whole or in part by public funds or expending public funds must be open to the public.”

“The open-meeting law is anything but subtle. Nor is it ambiguous,” Sheehy said. If Southern is supported by public funds or if it spends public funds, its meetings must be open to the public, she said.

Southern accepted $2 million from Great Falls as an investment in its Highwood Generation Station project, wrote off $1 million of the investment and continues to control the remaining $1 million, Sheehy said.

The $2 million is public funds and Great Falls is a public entity, Sheehy said.

“Given the plain language of the statute, and the required interpretation in favor of openness, this issue is easily resolved,” she argued.

Ross maintained that the state's right-to-know provisions are “clearly ambiguous,” subtle and should be evaluated case by case. The Gazette is taking a “quantum leap” by arguing that Southern is an organization subject to open-meetings requirements, he said.

Southern is a private corporation created by its members and funded by the sales of wholesale electricity to provide power to its members, Ross said.

Great Falls' voluntary investment in Southern with the expectation of receiving benefits does not constitute public funding, Ross said.

The Gazette sued Southern after it closed three board meetings to a Gazette reporter and to others, including members of the Beartooth Electric Cooperative and a Great Falls resident. Beartooth and Great Falls are members of Southern.

Southern is the parent corporation of five cooperatives and was formed with the intent of building the Highwood station, a gas-fired power plant near Great Falls. Great Falls, through Electric City Power of Great Falls, joined Southern.

Watters said she would rule later. While the case has been pending, Southern agreed to allow a Gazette reporter to attend its meetings.

Contact Clair Johnson at cjohnson@billingsgazette.com or 657-1282.

Contact Clair Johnson at cjohnson@billingsgazette.com or 657-1282.

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