These are dark days for journalism in America. Despite the fact that more information is more accessible than ever before, it has only become more difficult for the average American to sift through the sands of misinformation and separate fact from fiction.
In Montana, journalists must continually press public officials for names, numbers and other materials — and keep up the pressure despite seemingly endless roadblocks and other tactics designed to stall the release of public information.
But spring is on the way. March 11-17 marks the annual return of Sunshine Week, when the Missoulian joins other news organizations across the nation to celebrate freedom of information — and renew our commitment to upholding the people’s right to know. Organized by the American Society of News Editors and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the The Gridiron Club and Foundation, Sunshine Week brings an opportunity to reflect on recent successful efforts to access public information — and shine a light on those dark corners still shrouded in secrecy.
Montana has some of the nation’s strongest open records laws, thanks to a state Constitution that explicitly states, “No person shall be deprived of the right to examine documents or to observe deliberations of all public bodies or agencies of state government and its subdivisions, except in cases in which the demand of individual privacy clearly exceeds the merits of public disclosure.”
Reporters regularly exercise this constitutional right on behalf of the general public when requesting documents from government employees. If those officials refuse to release important public information, the next step is to file a formal request citing the Freedom of Information Act.
More often than not, these government officials aren’t driven by a malevolent desire to hide important information. Rather, they are merely trying to minimize a mistake, or worried that they might violate someone’s privacy, or are making a personal judgment that certain information just isn’t important enough to warrant public scrutiny.
Missoulians saw a recent example of this attitude during the prioritization process undertaken by the University of Montana last year. Initially, the reports generated as part of that process, and used by task force members, were not made available to the general public.
In fact, the university’s legal counsel, Lucy France, told the task force that members of the public who wanted to review the documents could access them by filing public information requests. She explained to the Missoulian that she had assured the task force “that there was no legal requirement to make information instantaneously available.”
Fortunately, UM leadership on both the task force and in Main Hall followed through with their stated commitment to transparency, and made the prioritization information publicly accessible — and readily available. The university owes Montana taxpayers no less as a publicly funded institution. Journalists or not, individuals should not have to file formal information requests for documents that are already accessible to the campus community.
Unfortunately, public agencies too often require a formal request before they will release basic public information, which can lead to significant delays.
For example, a Freedom of Information Act request eventually forced the release of key details in the death of a 53-year-old man from Illinois who died after a fall in Yellowstone National Park last summer. After Yellowstone officials maintained that their investigation was private even months later, last month a TV news station in Billings shared the results of their request, which included the fact that Jeff Murphy had been searching for treasure in the time leading up to his death. With this key detail, Montanans can now be on the lookout for others who may be going after the famous “Fenn Treasure” said to have been hidden somewhere in the Rocky Mountains by art dealer and author Forrest Fenn.
Freedom of Information Act requests also help Montanans keep a closer eye on federal officials. In early December, requests filed by the Associated Press and other news organizations revealed that Interior Secretary had spent more than $53,000 in taxpayer money on helicopter trips under dubious circumstances. Further, the Department of the Interior tried to pay for one of Zinke’s helicopter tours by using wildfire preparedness funds. After this came to light, the department admitted it had charged the wrong account by “mistake.”
Last fall, Montanans learned that state Insurance Commissioner Matt Rosendale had told health insurance companies that they could raise rates if circumstances changed, then publicly chastised them when they did. A Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Bozeman Chronicle returned letters written by Rosendale last August assuring them that his office would work with them to "ensure rates are modified to address new circumstances" stemming from changes to the Affordable Care Act. In an October announcement, Rosedale noted the rate increases and added that “Montana families cannot continue to bail out companies that make poor business decisions.”
In January, a Freedom of Information Act request resulted in the release of a letter from former chairman of the Montana State Parks and Recreation Board, Tom Towe, in which he implored Gov. Steve Bullock to sign legislation that would allow the board to hire its own executive director. Bullock had vetoed the bill and then dismissed Towe from the board in August.
The Bullock administration is still refusing to provide important information about state settlements to employees. While the latest data from legislative auditors, provided in a memo to Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, suggests that the total amount of these settlements has increased dramatically in recent years, reaching $875,226 in the 2017 budget year and topping $336,000 in 2018 already, even auditors don’t have a full measure of the number or amount of every settlement agreed to in recent years.
Journalists will continue shining a light on this issue and others, this week and every week. Our fellow Montanans are more than welcome to join us as we continue the fight for public access and greater transparency. Help us let the sunshine in.