The Montana Constitution makes strong guarantees of the public's right to know about state and local government.
Intrinsic to that right is the right to participate by attending public governmental meetings. The only situation in which the constitution permits the closing of a public meeting is when interest in individual privacy “clearly exceeds” the public's right to know.
This is a high standard that reflects Montanans' longstanding expectation that their government will be transparent, and thus responsive to citizens.
However, attacks on the public right to know continue. The latest entry in Helena is House Bill 301, sponsored by Rep. James Knox, a first-term Republican from Billings Heights.
Knox's bill would allow public governmental bodies (such as city councils, school boards and county commissions) to shut out the public “to give direction and convey intent to parties who are to conduct actual labor contract negotiations.”
This is no small change Knox proposes. Labor costs are a major portion of most governmental budgets. Labor contracts affect every aspect of public service.
The HB301 proposal is clearly unconstitutional. The Montana Supreme Court nullified a previous legislative attempt to veil public employee contract negotiations in secrecy. In 1992, the court ruled 6-1 that “the collective bargaining strategy exception is an impermissible attempt by the Legislature to extend the grounds upon which a meeting may be closed.”
The 1992 decision came in a case filed by the Great Falls Tribune against that city's school board, alleging that it violating the open-meeting provisions of the constitution and state statute by meeting secretly in 1990. The board maintained both that “discussions that may have taken place ... were not meetings within the meaning of applicable law” and that “any meetings that that may have taken place were entitled to be secret because they pertained to collective-bargaining strategy,” according to Supreme Court documents.
That case illustrates the slippery slope of shutting the public out of public meetings. Nobody other than those in the closed meeting can know for sure what was discussed or decided. The public may not even know that a meeting took place.
There is no substantive difference between the open-meeting exception that HB301 proposes and the law that was found to be unconstitutional in 1992.
We would like to think that the vast majority of Montana's citizen lawmakers understand and value our constitutional guarantees of open government. But we take nothing for granted. We call on every Montana legislator who has read our constitution to stand up for it. We asked every member of the House State Administration Committee — including Knox, Tom McGillvray, Dan Kennedy and Doug Kary, all of Billings to vote down this unconstitutional HB301.
Lawmakers, please help keep government accountable to the people. Keep public meetings open!