Twenty-seven Missoula County employees are alleging their constitutional right to privacy has been violated during the “course and scope” of their employment, and are threatening to file a lawsuit over their concerns.
On Tuesday, the county commission closed a meeting to the public to discuss litigation strategy in connection with a draft of the employees’ legal complaint and the demand letter that was served on the county. Deputy County Attorney John Hart noted that under state statutes, closing the meeting is legal to discuss litigation strategy.
Hart declined to disclose the department in which the employees worked, and also refused to release a copy of the claim letter or the draft complaint.
“The demand letter and claim are not in court yet. It was given to us to offer to reach a compromise settlement” prior to filing the lawsuit, Hart said. “We needed to discuss the claims and determine our strategy. If we would have done that in a public meeting, we wouldn’t have been able to discuss that.
“The county is always interested in resolving claims without having to go to court.”
He did refer questions to the employees’ attorney, Greg McDonnell, who also declined to comment on the allegations, identify the department or provide a copy of the draft complaint and demand letter.
"You are absolutely entitled to a copy of the draft letter," Mike Meloy, Montana's Freedom of Information Act attorney, wrote in an email to the Missoulian.
However, McDonnell said that “generally, our policy is to not comment on ongoing litigation. We are negotiating with the county in good faith and hope to resolve the claims of our clients without filing a lawsuit.”
Montana’s constitution states that “No person shall be deprived of the right to examine documents or to observe the 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.”
Montana’s Supreme Court also has ruled that there is a constitutional presumption that documents of every kind — whether they’re drafts or finals — given to public officials are open to public inspection. In addition, the court has ruled that in balancing an individual’s right to privacy versus that of public disclosure, if the balance is even the scales must be tipped in favor of the public’s right to know.