Martha Williams

FWP Director Martha Williams is shown teaching a class at the University of Montana in this file photo. 

Photo provided by the University of Montana

After a legal back-and-forth that lasted several weeks, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has finally disclosed the terms of its six-figure settlement with ousted Montana State Parks Administrator Chas Van Genderen.

This little ray of sunshine is a win for all Montanans interested in learning more about the decisions their state leaders are making behind closed doors. However, FWP’s unsettling stance on this issue affirms that the war on secrecy is far from over within the ranks of Montana’s state government.

Earlier this year, the agency confirmed the existence of a settlement for an undisclosed amount of money but refused to disclose any of the details, even though Montana law requires public access to “all terms, conditions, and details of the government portion of a compromise or settlement agreement.” An attorney and former law professor, FWP Director Martha Williams initially said she would not release the settlement to the public unless a judge ordered her to do so.

In our view, this information must be open to the public because the public is ultimately responsible for the way their government operates, and people can’t make good decisions if they are continually left out of the loop.

Predictably, FWP cited the go-to excuse used at all levels of government to justify withholding public information. The state allows records to be concealed if someone’s right to privacy is deemed more important than the public’s right to know, and FWP concluded there were enough privacy issues involved in the settlement agreement to “weigh in the balance in favor of privacy.”

However, as a high-ranking government employee who was pervasively involved in public affairs, Van Genderen is legally considered a public figure with a lower expectation of privacy than private citizens. And when a public body uses public money to pay out a public figure who held a public position, it’s laughable to call the situation anything but a public matter.

FWP officials also claimed they couldn’t release the settlement agreement because they agreed to a confidentiality clause they were obligated to uphold. We would argue that a public agency has no right to bargain away the public’s right to know, and state officials shouldn’t have put themselves in that position in the first place.

To FWP’s credit, the agency took the initiative to ask Van Genderen to waive the confidentiality agreement, which led to the release of the settlement agreement. The agency was not required to take this extra step, which demonstrated a certain level of interest in the public’s right to know.

But this didn’t happen until after our attorney threatened to sue the agency for withholding public information. And Williams said the settlement would still be treated as confidential employee information if Van Genderen had not waived his supposed right to keep the payout private.

Williams promised more transparency before she was hired as FWP’s director earlier this year, so it was unfortunate to see the department take this less-than-transparent stance.

But we are glad FWP complied with our records request in the end, and we will continue to fight for transparency within state agencies so Montanans can effectively evaluate the government leaders who work for them.

This editorial originally appeared in the Helena Independent Record. 

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