Great Falls resident Aart Dolman rose at 4 a.m. Thursday to drive to Billings to attend the monthly board meeting of the Southern Montana Electric Cooperative.
“I’m here. I’m on the agenda,’’ Dolman said in the parking lot at 3521 Gabel Road, where Southern’s office is located. Board members were to be discussing a request he has made for documents about its policy on retaining and destroying records, he said.
Dolman also had an opinion from the Great Falls city attorney that Southern’s meetings must be open to the public with the exception of discussing trade secrets and other proprietary issues.
But Dolman and a few other co-op members were shut out of the 9 a.m. meeting — again.
As in March, when members tried to attend Southern’s annual board meeting, a Billings police officer told the small group they had not been invited to the meeting and that the property owner wanted them off the property.
Officer Garrett Peterson asked the group to move to the public sidewalk.
“This meeting is open,’’ said Arleen Boyd, a Fishtail resident and member of the Beartooth Electric Cooperative, a Southern member.
“I’m not here to argue,’’ Peterson replied. “It’s a closed meeting.’’
If they were not on the board and not invited, they could not attend the meeting, Peterson told the group.
After more back and forth, the group left, but not before videotaping and photographing the exchange.
The confrontation is part of a continuing dispute between co-op members and the Southern board. Boyd and other Beartooth members, along with Dolman, have pressed for more information as electric rates have increased and Southern has invested millions of dollars in the Highwood Generation Station in Great Falls.
Southern is made of five member co-ops from south-central Montana, along with Electric City Power of Great Falls.
Tim Gregori, CEO of Southern, has said that most board members favor regional meetings as the best way to answer questions.
Dolman, a member of Citizens for Clean Energy, has been active in getting documents from Southern and is writing a history of Great Falls’ involvement in the Highwood plant.
Southern, a private, nonprofit corporation, contracts with Great Falls. In response to a request from the city manager, Great Falls City Attorney James Santoro issued an opinion in April about the public’s right to know and participate in Southern’s meetings.
Santoro said Southern’s meetings must be open and that the public has a right to access “any and all documents given to the City of Great Falls from Southern,’’ unless Southern shows a property right protection.
Southern is “supported in whole or in part by public funds as well as expends public funds for its capital ventures,’’ Santoro said. “Further, Southern is organized to protect and provide energy to the citizens of the city of Great Falls and to other customers.’’
A draft copy of Southern’s agenda had as the last item of business: “Attendance at Southern Montana Board Meetings.’’