April 9, Great Falls Tribune Editorial Board

Battling for open government, and for keeping the public’s business out in the sunlight, is a fight that never ends.

Sometimes public officials take action outside of view of the public, even when doing so violates state law. It takes vigilance on the part of the public to see that Montana’s sunshine laws are enforced.

The Great Falls Tribune has filed several landmark lawsuits supporting Montanans’ right to know over the years. We’re proud of the work we have done in favor of the right to know.

It’s not easy to fight the good fight for newspapers, where time and money are often in short supply. For smaller, locally owned weekly publications, it’s just that much tougher. Yet, if newspapers across the state don’t fight to keep government open, who will?

We would like to applaud the efforts of the owners of two weekly newspapers in Browning and Cut Bank, the Glacier Reporter and the Cut Bank Pioneer Press, who have sued Glacier County Commissioners Michael DesRosier and Tom McKay in State District Court. The suit alleges DesRosier and McKay held an illegal meeting Feb. 9 in a session that also included Glacier County Treasurer Mary Ann Boggs and a prospective independent contractor, Kate Salois, the former treasurer.

The lawsuit contends county commissioners held the meeting without giving notice, which would violate the state Open Meetings Law. The suit demands that commissioners hold an open session on the hiring, with proper notice and discussion. Glacier County already has paid Salois thousands of dollars for consulting work.

We find actions that violate the Open Meetings Law to be repugnant, especially when public officials knowingly flout the law.

The newspapers’ publishers, Brian and LeAnne Kavanagh, are not alone in doing fine work for transparency on the front lines of Montana journalism. During the last 20 years, the Montana Supreme Court has reviewed 52 cases involving the public’s right to know about meetings or documents; about 60 percent are filed by newspapers. In addition, there are perhaps three to four cases filed each year that are not appealed to the state’s high court, bringing the total number of these cases since 1995 above the 100 mark.

The Montana Supreme Court deserves high praise for backing the public’s right to attend meetings and examine documents over the years, as do the state’s district judges. Members of the Constitutional Convention from 1972 also deserve accolades, as do those public officials who conscientiously go about their business and do their best to abide by the state’s open meeting and document laws.

Making sure the laws and rulings are followed remains an important task. A Montana Freedom of Information Hotline is available to state journalists and others for questions about open meetings and documents.

The chairwoman of the FOI Hotline board is Melody Martinsen, editor and co-owner of the Choteau Acantha newspaper since 1990. Before buying the Acantha, Martinsen worked for the Tribune in Great Falls, and boldly asserted the public’s right to attend a court hearing a state district judge was closing to public view, despite a threat of jail. In her work as a newspaper editor in Choteau, a letter from an attorney laying out state sunshine laws to a board or agency can be as effective as a lawsuit, she said.

Martinsen said the Montana Association of Counties, League of Cities and Towns and the Local Government Center in Bozeman have been helpful educating officials about their obligations under Montana law.

This is a good time to recognize the courage and spunk of Montana journalists at newspapers throughout Big Sky Country, who do not meekly accept explanations from officials who seek to do the public’s business behind closed doors.

Martinsen said “it’s a great trend” that email messages sent by officials are considered public information..

We’re starting to see sunshine in northcentral Montana this spring. Let’s hope that sunshine continues to extend to the operations of government as well.