The Boulder Monitor recently dropped a lawsuit against the Jefferson High School Board of Trustees after nearly two years of tense litigation and four months after the Montana Supreme Court decision went against the newspaper.
The Monitor filed a lawsuit against the board in July 2012, claiming the board violated Montana open meeting laws.
“We filed it after a July 13, 2012, budget subcommittee meeting,” said Monitor editor Jan Anderson.
The three-person committee was scheduled to meet to discuss the 2012-2013 budget, Anderson said, noting that vague description was the only item on the meeting agenda.
The full seven-member board had discussed four candidates for a new principal at the high school during its regular meeting a few days earlier, but following the subcommittee meeting, the candidate pool had narrowed to two.
“Somehow they got from four to that two, and the only official meeting that was held during that time (between full board meetings) was that subcommittee meeting,” Anderson said.
Anderson said the attendance at the subcommittee meeting constituted a quorum. Because she believes administrative decisions regarding the principal candidates were made, it should have been listed on the meeting agenda.
Excluding it, “violated the public’s right to know and their right to participate,” Anderson said.
So she filed the lawsuit, successfully winning the case in District Court. However, the board appealed the decision to the Montana Supreme Court, and the decision was reversed in January.
The Supreme Court ruled that the fourth, non-subcommittee member of the board who attended the meeting was in her rights as a member of the public to do so. Her involvement with the board should not have prevented her from attending.
The majority decision released by the Supreme Court argues that the meeting was not a violation of the open meetings statute.
“In fact, it can be argued that the better public policy would be to encourage members of public bodies to observe such events so they can be better educated and informed about matters that they will later vote on in their official capacities,” the decision said.
“Penalizing those members and the public bodies they serve by an unwarranted application of the statute creates a difficult labyrinth for public servants and threatens to turn any Saturday night at the country rodeo into a board meeting that must be noticed,” the decision said.
Sabrina Steketee, chair of the Jefferson High School Board of Trustees, was thrilled to receive the Supreme Court ruling in January.
“The wording of their ruling, in terms of squarely addressing the open meeting law issue, that we were entirely within our bounds, it was just so strong,” she said Friday.
She said the victory was even sweeter after the board’s loss in District Court.
“When the (District Court) judge ruled against us in this case we were just really flabbergasted, we just couldn’t believe it,” Steketee said.
When she heard The Monitor was dropping the lawsuit in late March, Steketee was thrilled.
“We’re really happy about that, just to have it behind us and … to have stood up for ourselves and have tackled something head-on that was really uncomfortable and really hard to do.”
Setting a precedent?
Though the majority decision ruled in favor of the board of trustees, Justice Laurie McKinnon included a stark dissent.
“Without public notice, an open meeting is open in theory only, not in practice,” she said. “The Court’s decision today will lead government agencies down a slippery slope by raising the question of whether presence at a public meeting of the body upon which a member serves constitutes a quorum.
“The Court’s approach in this case will enable public bodies to circumvent the open-meeting laws by announcing that they never ‘convened’ a meeting, even though a quorum of the constituent membership was presented and discussed matters over which the agency has supervision, control, jurisdiction, or advisory power,” she said.
Anderson had a similar reaction when she heard the verdict.
“Any bodies that think this opens the door for them are going to have to be extremely careful,” Anderson said. “Because the public, I believe, will be expecting them to conduct business as the constitution says they’re supposed to.”
It took months for her to decide whether or not to drop the suit.
“We still believe that the process that was used by the school board denied the public their rights, but reaching a point where we would get a final court determination that would say that was a ways out,” she said.
She noted that the appointed principal is “generally believed to be doing a good job.”
“We didn’t feel it would be worth creating the chaos it would create at the school to ask that he be removed and the process (of litigation) start all over,” she said.
Mike Meloy, attorney for the Montana Freedom of Information Act Hotline, said he doesn’t think the decision will set a harmful precedent.
“Judge McKinnon, in her spirited dissent, opined that this would open a loophole that would permit a public entity to avoid giving notice and essentially cutting the public out of a meeting,” he said.
“I think that if a board were to do that, it would not be very difficult for the public, for the media, to learn of that subterfuge,” Meloy said.
“I agree with Judge McKinnon that it opens a door, but I think it’s a door that a public entity would be very unwise to enter,” he said.