Mont. ruling opens meetings of high-level college officials

MONTANA — Rather than let a reporter into a meeting about student tuition rates and budget cuts, former Montana Commissioner of Higher Education Richard A. Crofts cancelled the meeting of Montana University System’s top administrators altogether. A May 14 ruling by the state’s highest court, however, said the public has a right to attend such meetings, as they are subject to state sunshine laws.

In a 5-2 decision, the Montana Supreme Court found that the officials’ closed-door discussions of university policy and other matters violated requirements for public meetings in the state constitution. 

The ruling was the result of a lawsuit filed in February 2002 by the Associated Press and 13 other news organizations after Crofts refused to allow Bob Anez, an AP reporter, to attend a February 2001 meeting between Crofts and senior officials of the Montana University System. 

Lawyers for the university system argued that meetings of the so-called Policy Committee or Senior Management Group, which met behind closed doors 14 times between June 1999 and December 2001, were informal discussions between the commissioner and university officials. 

They claimed the group was not subject to open-meetings requirements because it was not created by any law or regulation, held meetings irregularly, took no votes, had an undefined membership and did not keep minutes.

The Supreme Court disagreed.

“Devices such as not fixing a specific membership of a body, not adopting formal rules, not keeping minutes … and not requiring formal votes, must not be allowed to defeat the constitutional and statutory provisions which require that the public’s business be openly conducted,” wrote Justice John Warner for the court’s majority. “Government operates most effectively, most reliably, and is most accountable when it is subject to public scrutiny.” 

The Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling that the closed meetings violated the state constitution. 

Lawyers for the media organizations argued that the group discussed matters of public interest at the meetings, including university policy changes, student tuition and fee rates, university budgets, contracts, employee salaries and legislative initiatives. 

The court found that officials were also paid to attend the meetings and used public funds to pay for travel to the meetings. 

Writing for the court’s two-judge minority in dissent, Justice W. William Leaphart found that the meetings were “too far removed from the decision-making process to trigger the need for access.”

 Ronald F. Waterman, a lawyer for the media organizations, said the court’s ruling sends a strong message that Montana’s public agencies should err on the side of openness when there is a question of whether the open-meetings requirements apply.

“I thought it was very insightful for the court to point out that agencies and public bodies should not attempt to create 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 types of technical arguments (we don’t keep minutes, we are not dually appointed, et cetera, et cetera) are not really going to stand up to scrutiny.” 

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