The city of Billings lost an important lawsuit regarding the release of information related to city police officers having sex either on duty or on public property.
The city also lost more than $17,000 in taxpayer money which will go to fund a private attorney.
Worst of all, it may have lost public trust as a result.
But, don't take our word for it.
Take Yellowstone County District Judge Donald Harris' words:
"[T]he City shirked its constitutional obligation to inform the public about issues the public clearly had the right to know about. The Gazette/KTVQ never should have had to intervene in this case," Harris wrote. "The City could have and should have strongly argued that the public had the right to know the Officers' names and inspect the disciplinary documents. The City fails to understand its constitutional obligation to promptly disclose information the public has a right to know and to resist efforts to conceal that information when there is no legal or factual basis for doing so."
When The Billings Gazette and KTVQ took the city of Billings to court to force the release of information, including the names of Billings Police officers who were disciplined for having sex either on city property or while on duty, we did so because we believed residents should know what is going on with the police force. We believe that's part of holding government accountable. We also believe that citizens should have faith in the police.
But the city decided to throw in with police officers, helping them to seal their identities. We have to wonder why: Was it to help cover for its own and avoid the embarrassment? Yet, the more the city sided with the officers, the bigger the story became.
In his ruling, Harris acknowledged that originally Police Chief Rich St. John told the officers that he would not hide their behavior and would disclose the details. In other words, sunlight shone on government is a powerful antidote to bad behavior.
Yet after the police chief and one of the city attorneys agreed to release the information, there was a change. Instead of releasing the information as promised, the city reneged and decided to help the officers hide their own identities. In doing so, the city forced us to sue to obtain what the court ultimately determined was the public's right to know.
We don't know what changed then, but we do know the city caused roadblocks and delayed the release of what was public information. The court found as much.
"The city knowingly assisted and participated in the Police Officers' attempts to thwart the public's right to know," Harris ruled.
Maybe the city refused because of bureaucratic arrogance that seems to reign supreme in the city attorney's office which allows it to lord over information, and dole it out as if it's a gift to the public, not a constitutional obligation.
All in all, the city will be out thousands of dollars for a fight that should have never happened. The city will have to pay its own private attorney instead of someone within the city attorney's office which, at one point, had agreed to release the information. Why is it that the city must always hire outside counsel to fight the public's right to know?
And, the city will also have to pay more than $17,000 for The Gazette and KTVQ's attorney. In other words, the city will pay three times for attorneys — once for its own staff; again for outside counsel to represent it; and again for the attorney hired by The Gazette and KTVQ, who helped bring the details to light.
This is not an isolated incident. Two years ago, the city was on the hook for attorney's fees when it tried to cover up missing money from the city's landfill. By the time that was revealed, there was a recycling scheme and $12,000 in (mostly) cash missing.
A few years before that, the city refused to release the names of employees looking at pornography on the job.
How much money can taxpayers in Billings be expected to pay, especially to cover up behavior which has no excuse? Porn, taking money and having sex on duty?
The city continues to defend bad behavior, and goes the extra step to try to cover it. It forces the media to sue to protect citizens' constitutional right to know what the government is doing. You have to wonder why Billings and its government repeatedly wants to keep its citizens in the dark. And, citizens should be asking themselves: What steps need to happen to bring about a permanent change in the city's abysmal legal positioning?
We place the blame ultimately at the City Council, which could order the change through the city administrator. We have a new administrator. It's time for a change of legal direction at City Hall.
City Council, how many more lawsuits and how many thousands in taxpayers funds do you have to lose before you make a permanent, lasting change?