Today marks the beginning of Sunshine Week, an annual effort on the part of news media and open government advocates everywhere to highlight the importance of freedom of information. As part of that effort each year, the Missoulian joins other news organizations throughout the United States in encouraging a discussion about open government and its importance in our democracy.
Every day of every year, the Missoulian works with dogged determination to shed light on our local and state governments, courts, law enforcement agencies and other public entities. This year, we are compelled to point out that it's darker than ever out there.
It's ironic, given that today's readers have unprecedented access to information through new technologies. Yet information from our elected officials and government agencies has never been harder to access.
This difficulty cuts across all party lines and all levels of government, from the private email account Hillary Clinton used during her years as secretary of state, to secret meetings of party caucuses in Montana, all the way down to the school board in Ronan closing important deliberations to the public.
In the latter case, a standing-room-only crowd of about 150 people were not allowed to speak about the suspension of five students who were arrested on drug distribution charges. In fact, people in the audience were told they could only speak about “things not on the agenda” during the public comment period. Shouldn’t citizens be able to freely voice their opinion to their elected representatives on any topic?
The Ronan School Board discussed the matter in executive session, ultimately rejecting the superintendent's recommendation and deciding to readmit the students. Many Ronan residents were rightly baffled by the decision and upset at being shut out of the discussion. Even the final vote was couched in words that made it difficult to know what action was being taken.
Missoulian reporters routinely encounter similar situations throughout our region and right here in Missoula. That’s why we constantly and loudly advocate for public access.
In some cases, this takes the form of an official public records request. In the past year, Missoulian reporters have made such requests dozens of times:
- We filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Federal Aviation Administration to learn the number of drones registered in Montana.
- We filed a Montana Freedom of Information Act to obtain 9-1-1 recordings of the domestic incident that involved Kaileb Cole Williams and his mother before Williams was shot and killed by a Missoula police officer.
- We also sought access to records of Markus Kaarma's prior criminal history after he was charged with deliberate homicide for shooting a German high-school student in his garage.
- We filed a request with Missoula County Public Schools to access the personnel files of Valerie Stamey and discover why she was terminated by the district. Stamey worked for the district as a food server before we was appointed as Ravalli County treasurer with very little experience. She was eventually fired from Ravalli County, but MCPS never released her files.
- We are also waiting for MCPS to release the employee and disciplinary records for Libby Oliver, who acted as assistant principal at Sentinel High School before it was determined she had an "inappropriate relationship" with another school administrator on school grounds. Oliver, who was moved to Hellgate High School, filed an injunction request in court to block the Missoulian's public records request.
- In December, the Missoulian filed a second records request with MCPS, seeking further information relating to any findings of misconduct. Such documents are considered public under state law. Those documents have not yet been provided to the newspaper, or the public.
Nearly every day, Missoulian reporters are met with resistance by public servants. Sometimes that resistance takes the form of unreasonably high costs to supply copies. Sometimes it comes from a public information officer or communications director who controls access to information and sources in an attempt to “manage” the news.
But it's our job to report on the information the public has a right to see, even and especially when it doesn't reflect the party line. It's our firm belief that members of the public have the right to decide for themselves what information they find relevant. Indeed, public access is the foundation of our democracy.
That's why there are windows of public access built into every level of our government. It's time to throw open those windows and let the sunshine in.