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Guest editorial: Can we fix Montana's transparency laws now?
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Guest editorial

Guest editorial: Can we fix Montana's transparency laws now?

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Current and former lawmakers are asking whether editorial boards around Montana are still concerned about the state’s lax government transparency laws.

Let us be the first to say: Yes! Yes! A thousand times yes!

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, and retired Republican legislator Dee Brown of Hungry Horse both penned recent opinions raising concerns about an open records issue at the center of an ongoing dispute between the legislative and judicial branches of our state government. Though the issue has been extensively reported on the news pages of the Independent Record and other Montana media, Regier and Brown chastised editorial boards in Montana for not sharing our opinions about it.

In a nutshell, the Montana Supreme Court administrator admitted to deleting emails that some Republican lawmakers believe would have proved the judicial branch is biased. Although the Montana Supreme Court email policy states nothing about records retention, it does state that all messages are property of the state of Montana and will be subject to public scrutiny.

There’s no question in our mind that these emails were public documents and should have been available to state lawmakers and anyone else who wanted to see them, regardless of their motives. And although this is not our fight, it is refreshing to see that at least one current lawmaker who can make a difference actually cares what we have to say about it.

Independent watchdog organizations have consistently ranked Montana among the worst in the nation for government transparency, and we’ve been calling for reform for years. Although the public’s right to know is enshrined in the Montana Constitution and state law, these rules will not be worth the paper they’re written on until the state enforces them.

Alas, our state's transparency laws remained unchanged after we raised concerns about government officials conducting public business in private emails, excluding the public from caucus meetings, and withholding public information about everything from registered daycare providers and the Public Employees' Retirement System to draft minutes from public meetings. 

A change was made after we spoke out about the state withholding information about the hundreds of thousands of dollars it spent on legal settlements with state employees. The state is now posting information about these settlements in an online “transparency” portal as a result of an executive order by former Gov. Steve Bullock, which is great, but we recently learned that state officials still get to pick and choose which settlements they want to make public, which is not so great.

Are we just as concerned about the Montana Supreme Court administrator deleting public records that Republican lawmakers wanted to see?

Absolutely! Thanks for asking!

There is not enough time in the day or ink in Montana for us to weigh in on all of the open records and open meetings problems plaguing our state, but this is certainly one of them.

Can we fix the state’s transparency laws now?

This is the editorial was originally published in the Helena Independent Record.

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