Lee Newspapers Endowment Fund helps support Montana FOI Hotline

The Montana Freedom of Information Hotline recently received a $5,500 grant for operating support or unrestricted support from Lee Newspapers Endowment Fund of the Montana Community Foundation.

Since its founding in 1988, the Montana FOI Hotline has relied on donations from Montana news media, individuals and other organizations for funding.

For many years, the National Freedom of Information Coalition supplemented those donations with grants for the Montana FOI Hotline’s operating revenue. However, the NFOIC in 2015 suspended its grant program, prompting the Montana FOI Hotline to ask the state’s media for additional donations and to seek additional funding from other granting organizations.

The Montana FOI Hotline advocates for keeping the operations of government agencies in Montana open for public observation and participation. It provides free legal advice and assistance to journalists and members of the public facing improperly closed government doors or sealed documents.

Working closely with Darrell Ehrlick, editor of the Lee Enterprises-owned Billings Gazette, the Montana FOI Hotline submitted a grant request to the Lee Newspapers Endowment Fund of the Montana Community Foundation. The money came from a Montana Lee properties’ side fund that goes through the Lee foundation. Ehrlick attributed the breakdown of the $5,500 grant as follows: $2,500 from the Gazette; $1,500 from the Missoulian; and $1,500 from the Independent Record of Helena and Montana Standard of Butte.

“The Lee Newspapers Endowment Fund’s generous $5,500 grant award will allow the Montana FOI Hotline Inc. to continue to provide prompt, professional legal advice to news media and citizens alike as they work to obtain public documents and to observe government in action,” said Melody Martinsen, chairwoman of the Montana FOI Hotline and editor/co-owner of Choteau Acantha Publishing Inc. “This grant will also allow us to complete updating the Access in Montana guide, available on the FOI website, to reflect changes made by the state Legislature and Montana courts since August 2012.

“This is particularly important because the Montana Legislature in 2015 overhauled the state’s public documents provisions and the changes are creating some confusion on the part of government officials and journalists. The Access in Montana guide explains those changes, provides proper Montana Code Annotated cites and will be a valuable tool for journalists and citizens as they launch FOI requests.

“We thank the Lee Newspapers Foundation Endowment Fund for recognizing the need for the FOI Hotline and helping to sustain our operation and complete the website update.”

To date this calendar year, the FOI Hotline has received $7,308 from 66 donors, plus an additional $1,163 for the update project. The $5,500 grant boosts the Montana FOI Hotline total income for 2016 to $12,808.

In 2015, the hotline’s attorney, Mike Meloy of Helena, answered 226 calls, with 121 from the media and 105 from non-media individuals concerning open meeting and document access issues.