The request for public information was simple: A Billings Gazette reporter asked to see the corrective action forms issued to city employees found to have violated city policy on Internet use.
The city refused.
The Gazette asked the District Court to order the city to release that public governmental information.
Judge Russell Fagg agreed that the documents are public records and ordered the city to release them to the newspaper.
The city, through its hired outside counsel, appealed Fagg’s order.
The judge then granted The Gazette’s request to release the documents with the employees’ names and identifying information deleted pending the city’s appeal to the Montana Supreme Court.
Thanks to Fagg’s ruling for open government, Billings residents now know that five city employees were suspended for several days at various times this spring and summer as the result of city investigations into employee use of city computers and Internet connections. The documents state that the alleged violations involved “excessive amounts of time being spent on non-work related searches” while the employee was being paid by the city. The documents state that city considers the amount of time "devoted to inappropriate and non-work related Internet searches as excessive and a theft of work time that the city compensated you for.”
Specifically, the employees were found to have spent time --- over a week or more of monitoring – “seeking out pictures of women on the Internet that were sexual in nature.”
The city makes the preposterous argument that government employees whom the city has found to have committed “theft” have a legal right to confidentiality. City policy warns employees that their Internet use is monitored and that they “should not assume they are provided any degree of anonymity” in their use of city Internet services.
Montana has strong right to know provisions in the state constitution and in state statute. All public governmental documents are supposed to be open to public inspection – unless the right to personal privacy clearly outweighs the public’s right to know about their government.
As Fagg wrote, “Society will not permit complete privacy and unaccountability when a public employee is accused of misconduct which is related to the performance of his or her public duties.”
The city’s refusal to make public information public has become a troubling pattern. Gazette readers may recall that the newspaper also had to file a lawsuit to find out what a former senior civilian administrator in the Police Department was accused of stealing. The employee in that case, Deanna Anthony, pleaded guilty to embezzlement earlier this month and was sentenced to two years of probation and ordered to pay $9,263 restitution to the city over the next two years. The District Court also ruled for open records in the Anthony case and the city appealed (unsuccessfully) to the Montana Supreme Court.
Once again, city administration is taking a straightforward public-records request and turning it into lengthy, expensive litigation. The city should rethink its hostility to open records and start complying with the law.