Mont. higher education commissioner faces open-meetings suit

MONTANA — Alleged violations of open-meetings laws bystate university officials led 14 news and media organizationsto sue the state commissioner of higher education last month.

The complaint filed by the media on Feb. 8 in Helena districtcourt states that Associated Press reporter Bob Anez tried toattend a meeting on Feb. 1 in Helena between the state Commissionerof Higher Education Richard Crofts and senior management officialsof the state university system. According to the complaint, adisagreement ensued between Anez and Crofts over whether the gatheringwas subject to Montana open-meetings laws. Rather than allow Anezto stay, Crofts decided to cancel the meeting altogether.

LeRoy Schramm, the university system’s chief attorney, saidthat a 1993 Montana Supreme Court decision allows management meetings,like the recent one headed by Crofts, to be closed. All the officialspresent were answerable to Crofts, making it merely a staff meeting,Schramm said.

Media lawyer Ron Waterman disagreed.

"Because of the [open-meetings] law and the cases thathave construed that statute to date, it is clear that those seniormanagement meetings are covered by the open-meetings law,"Waterman said. "Therefore the public and the press are entitledto be present at all of them and to receive notice of when theyare going to occur."

An agenda for Crofts’ five-hour scheduled meeting obtainedby the AP shows 19 items slated for discussion, including budgetaryand student tuition issues.

In the media complaint, Waterman asked the court to declarethat all such meetings are open and to grant a preliminary injunctionbarring Crofts from holding any similar closed meetings whilethe court deliberates on the case.

In addition to The Associated Press, the plaintiffs in thecase are The Bozeman Daily Chronicle, The Montana Standard,Missoulian, Great Falls Tribune, Montana NewspaperAssociation, Montana Broadcasters Association, The BillingsGazette, The Daily Inter Lake, Montana Television Network,Eagle Television Network, Havre Daily News, Helena IndependentRecord and Yellowstone Newspapers.