Time for lawmakers to strengthen Montana’s sunshine laws
September 9, 2015
Independent Record Editorial
Montana’s continued secrecy with information that should be released to the public is now threatening not only its citizens’ right to know, but also federal money intended to protect children.
As we’ve written in the past, many of the organizations that evaluate government transparency consistently rank Montana among the worst states in the nation.
We in the media have experienced the problem firsthand, as government officials routinely ignore or reject our requests for information of high public interest. And unless we’re able to force disclosure with a costly and time-consuming lawsuit, that often means the Montanans we serve don’t get information they need to determine what their government officials are doing or how their tax dollars are being spent.
Now it’s the federal government raising concerns with Montana’s closed-government culture. And the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is threatening to discontinue an annual $120,000 grant for child abuse prevention if the state continues to withhold details about children who die at their caregivers’ hands, the Associated Press reported.
While officials with Montana’s Department of Public Health and Human Services acknowledged that public awareness about child abuse deaths is needed to “bring systemic changes to improve the safety of children,” they say a state confidentiality law prevents them from releasing the information.
Montana’s overzealous confidentiality laws appear to be the root cause of the problems we are experiencing, too.
The state allows records to be withheld if a person’s right to privacy is deemed more important than the public’s right to know. But without specifying what type of private information crosses that line, the vague privacy exemption is used a lot more frequently than it should be.
Federal rules require transparency in cases where a child dies from abuse or neglect. And in an attempt to preserve the federal grant, Montana DPHHS officials said they would urge the 2017 Legislature to pass a law bringing the state into compliance.
We hope this issue will finally convince state lawmakers that government secrecy comes with consequences and serve as an impetus for comprehensive transparency law reform.