Mont. high court rules closed discussions of university officials violated meetings law

MONTANA— The state’s highest court ruled May 4 that meetings between topadministrators of the Montana University System and the state’s commissioner ofhigher education must be open to the public.In a 5-2 decision, theMontana Supreme Court found that the officials’ closed-door discussions ofuniversity policy and other matters violated requirements for public meetings inthe state constitution. The ruling was the result of a lawsuit filed bythe Associated Press and 13 other news organizations after former Commissionerof Higher Education Richard A. Crofts refused to allow Bob Anez, an AP reporter,to attend a February 2001 meeting between Crofts and senior officials of theMontana University System. Lawyers for the university system argued thatmeetings of the so-called Policy Committee or Senior Management Group, which metbehind closed doors 14 times between June 1999 and December 2001, were informaldiscussions between the commissioner and university officials. They claimed thegroup was not subject to open-meetings requirements because it was not createdby any law or regulation, held meetings irregularly, took no votes, had anundefined membership and did not keep minutes.The Supreme Courtdisagreed.”Devices such as not fixing a specific membership of a body,not adopting formal rules, not keeping minutes … and not requiring formalvotes, must not be allowed to defeat the constitutional and statutory provisionswhich require that the public’s business be openly conducted,” wrote JusticeJohn Warner for the majority. “Government operates most effectively, mostreliably, and is most accountable when it is subject to public scrutiny.” The Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling that the meetingsviolated the state constitution. Lawyers for the media organizationsargued that the group discussed matters of public interest at the meetings,including university policy changes, student tuition and fee rates, universitybudgets, contracts, employee salaries and legislative initiatives. The courtfound that officials were also paid to attend the meetings and used public fundsto pay for travel to the meetings. Writing for the court’s two-judgeminority in dissent, Justice W. William Leaphart found that the meetings were”too far removed from the decision-making process to trigger the need foraccess.” Ronald F. Waterman, lawyer for the media organizations, saidthe court’s ruling sends a strong message that Montana’s public agencies shoulderr on the side of openness when there is a question of whether theopen-meetings requirements apply.”I thought it was very insightful forthe court to point out that agencies and public bodies should not attempt tocreate a technical argument, as the commissioner’s office had done in this case”for why a meeting should not be open to the public, Waterman said. “Those typesof technical arguments (we don’t keep minutes, we are not dually appointed, etcetera et cetera) are not really going to stand up to scrutiny.”

Associated Press, et al., v. Crofts, No. 03-239 (Mont. Sup. Ct. May 4, 2004)

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