In what may be the finest example of the city of Billings wasting taxpayer money, it has now successfully spent thousands of dollars of city money to spend thousands more on paying for a lawsuit defending cops who were having sex while on duty or on city property.
It's waste upon waste while trying to cover up inexcusable behavior.
And yet the city continues to cry to residents that it needs more money as it prepares for another levy.
We don't disagree that public safety is inadequately funded in Billings. However, it's hard to pry open the pocketbooks of taxpayers when the leadership of the city spends money in such a terrible way.
Last week, the Montana State Supreme Court affirmed Yellowstone County District Court Judge Don Harris' decision to award attorneys' fees to KTVQ and The Billings Gazette, both of which were forced into court to get information about three Billings police officers who were having sex either while on duty or on city property.
The city originally agreed to disclose information about the naughty officers, including their names. But when the officers filed suit, the city joined the efforts to obtain a temporary restraining order, which meant the files were sealed from the public. Then The Gazette and KTVQ intervened in the suit, and the city obstructed or delayed release every step of the way.
Keep in mind the city had originally agreed to release the information, and Chief Rich St. John supported that decision. But then, the city hired a Bozeman law firm, unfamiliar with the background and unavailable for expedited proceedings, which only caused more delay and expense.
Then, the city bumped local Judge Mike Moses, who had already invested scores of hours analyzing the lawsuit.
When Judge Don Harris received the case and ordered the disclosure of the officers' identities and to pay the attorney's fees, the city reject Harris' respected determination, and appealed to the Montana Supreme Court, causing more expense and delay.
When Harris found in favor of public disclosure, the city argued that it shouldn't be held financially responsible for its actions. Yet, the Supreme Court saw through that flawed logic saying, "the temporary restraining orders led to additional litigation that the District Court concluded could have been avoided."
The high court acknowledged the city actively participated in shutting out the public, and has to pay because it violated the public's constitutional right to know.
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When The Gazette placed a public documents request in September, we learned that the city had already racked up $17,000 in attorney's fees. That was before the appeal had been finalized in Helena. We can only assume there were more legal fees incurred by the city's lawyers after that.
Harris awarded The Gazette and KTVQ just a little more than $10,000. So, if you're doing the math, it means that the city spent more than $17,000 just to try to save $10,000.
And that backfired.
Now, the city will have to pay its own legal fees plus the attorney fees for The Gazette and KTVQ. It spent $17,000 to try to save $10,000. And yet, it wound up spending at least $27,000 on a lawsuit that did nothing more than try to hide information from the public.
The Gazette and KTVQ believe it was our obligation as local journalists to ask questions and ultimately hold those in power to accountability, and we concur with Harris and the Supreme Court that the litigation was unnecessary and lamentable.
The reality of this story is that the details — had they been released — would have been news for a few days, and then public attention, especially in the day of social media, would have been distracted and pulled in a different direction.
We credit Police Chief Rich St. John for always being supportive of efforts at transparency within the department. He urged city leaders to release the information. But city leaders higher than him thought they knew better. They were wrong and the courts said so. Twice.
We hope the new city charts a new course with the Billings legal department. We hope that the poor advice and waste of taxpayer money stops. We hope that the council stops acting like a bystander in litigation instigated at the city's behest. We hope that the mayor and the council consider whether its litigation strategy, suit by suit, benefits the citizens, or merely delays the inevitable and required disclosure of public information.
In the long run, we believe that will be less costly, and it will provide more transparency to a city that seems to need more scrutiny.
And about $27,000.