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Remembering Your Rights During Sunshine Week

Each year at this time, newspapers across the nation recognize Sunshine Week as a reminder of the importance of transparency in government. The duty of newspapers include making sure government agencies follow open meeting laws including public notices.

In Montana, we’re fortunate that the Freedom of Information hotline, 406-4428670, is dedicated to keeping the operations of government in Montana open to public observation and participation.

Here is some brief information regarding Freedom of Information laws from that readers might find interesting.

* Can the public body discuss matters that are not on the agenda? No. The right to observe decision-making activities of a public body is conditioned on the public having advanced notice of the topic of the discussion. That’s the purpose of the agenda. When a body discusses matters which were not on the agenda, both the right to observe and the right to participate are violated.

* Can a government agency deny access to public information? §2-6-1003 MCA guarantees public access to all “public information” except information related to “individual or public safety or the security of public facilities, including public schools, jails, correctional facilities, private correctional facilities, and prisons, if release of the information jeopardizes the safety of facility personnel, the public, students in a public school, or inmates of a facility.” §2-61003(3) permits the Montana Historical Society to “honor” restrictions imposed by “private” record donors “as long as the restrictions do not apply to public information.”

* When are court documents officially public? Once a document is filed in court, any member of the public can have access to it unless the judge has ordered otherwise in certain special and rare situations. That means, for instance, that information cannot be withheld because the parties involved have not been served.

* Do open meetings/right to participate requirement apply to informal gatherings of a quorum of the members? Yes. Two of three members of a body riding together in a motor vehicle to a meeting, going out for coffee or lunch to discuss any public business are activities that are covered by open-meetings/ right-to-participate laws regardless of the formality of the setting.

* Do emails communicated to a quorum of a public body constitute a “meeting” and, therefore, subject to notice and observation by the public? Yes. In Allen v. Lakeside Neighborhood Planning Committee, 371 Mont. 310, 308 P.3d 916 (2013) the Supreme Court warned: “(w)e therefore caution public officers that conducting official business via email can potentially expose them to claims of violation of open meetings laws.”

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