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Montanans should feel pretty good. Your governor, Steve Bullock, believes you have amazing powers.

In fact, his administration thinks so much of you that folks in his administration actually believe you have the power to magically know about secret public meetings.

That’s right, secret public meetings.

Sure, you may have been under the silly impression that public meetings weren't secret; that public meetings were the opposite of secret. But in a disturbing trend that seems particularly pronounced in Lewis and Clark County, which happens to house the state’s capital, lawmakers and officials believe that public meetings can happen in secret. Some have even gone so far as to assert the public wants its business done behind closed doors. (GOP House caucus, we’re looking your direction.)

Forgive us, but we thought that part of the deal about public meetings and open government was letting folks observe, and in some cases, participate in the process.

Instead, the Bullock administration would like to argue that meetings, especially those it has held about Montana forest areas being selected for expedited logging, have been public even though no member of the public was ever informed.

The puzzling logic goes something like this: If members of the public had somehow intuited the meeting or had taken a wrong turn somewhere and wound up in the middle of the meetings, they wouldn't have been turned away.

In other words, if the public would have just shown up to a meeting that it could have only known about through the Psychic Friends Network, they would have been welcome.

That answer strains credulity.

It’s also convenient because it’s a completely unassailable claim unless you have a time machine. We can’t test the Bullock administration’s lawyers on this because no member of the public tried to get access to the meeting as it happened, and we can’t time warp back to see if it’s true. We can never know if a member of the public was welcome because no one knew about it so no one tried.

It’s rewriting history and ignoring the bigger picture which is that the public’s business must indeed be conducted in a public setting. And, there’s no way for the public to know without giving notice of a meeting, unless, of course, you believe that the public should just be able to sense a public meeting.

The lawyer for a conservation group which has brought the suit against the Bullock administration rightly pointed out: Meetings in Montana aren't just public when a decision is made. They’re public whenever groups of officials and leaders come together to discuss public policy or something in the public interest. Montana’s forest lands certainly qualify under that.


Apologize for error

If the public were only allowed to see government operate when officials made a decision, then government bodies from the local park boards up to the Legislature could hash out all their decisions in private and just give notice of a public vote. That sort of government would be a sham.

Luckily, the Montana Constitution demands more.

We call on the Bullock administration to stop fighting this clear-cut open meeting issue.

And, if the meeting was really as benign as the administration believes, then it should have no problem with apologizing for the oversight and ensuring that it will notice such meetings in the future.


Tortured logic

Government in Montana is founded upon the bedrock principle that meetings are done in open; when there’s any doubt, lawmakers should err on the side of openness and disclose more. There shouldn't be an exception just because it’s the governor or his staff.

Decisions done in secret and behind closed doors raise the appearance of impropriety. It looks like backroom political deals are being hatched. That undermines the faith an average citizen has in good government. For that reason alone, the Bullock administration should want more transparency, not less.

Mike Black, who represented the governor’s office, told the judge that the governor’s office provided information about the meetings when asked.

That brought a great response from Summer Nelson, the attorney representing the conservation group.

“It’s the state’s obligation to hold those meeting in the sunshine and not put the burden on the public to find out they’re having these meetings and then to say, ‘Hey, I've heard you’re having secret meetings. Can I attend now?’ “

There is no such thing as a secret public meeting.

The governor’s office apparently believes Montanans have extraordinary powers to know when these secret meetings are taking place, but apparently doesn't think enough of the citizens’ intellectual abilities to question the tortured logic that business behind closed doors is somehow really open.

This editorial was originally published in the Billings Gazette.

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