Exercise your right to know
March 25, 2021
Last week was Sunshine Week. It is a week spearheaded by the News Leaders Association to help the public understand the importance of open government and the dangers of excessive and unnecessary secrecy. As the name implies, the goal is to shed light on our government agencies and bring transparency to the people.
Have you ever sat through a board meeting and wondered what the board was discussing? Have you ever wanted more information about an item listed on the agenda or document being discussed prior to the meeting so you better understand it before making a comment?
As your community news organization we attend a lot of board meetings and ask a lot of questions of our elected officials and those that work for them. This allows us to provide our community with information that helps us convey what the boards are doing and why. However, you as the public have just as much right to the information and full disclosure by our government agencies as the press. All you have to do is ask!
The “Golden Rule” of government presented by Dan Clark with the Montana State University Local Government Center in his Open Meeting and the Public’s Right to Participate training for local governing boards is “The business of government is the people…” He goes on to state, “Government is not designed to be efficient, it’s designed to be fair. Fairness is assured by giving the opportunity for people to know what their government is doing for them…and to them.”
If a board oversees the expenditures of tax dollars, they must follow the Montana Constitution, the Freedom of Information Act and Open Meeting laws that all protect the public’s right to know, the right to search public records and the right of the public to participate in their government. Locally these boards include school boards, the sewer, water, fire and hospital districts, and county and state boards.
Boards must afford the opportunity for public comment on every agenda item and allow the public to inspect the documents they are discussing. How the chair chooses to do that is often very different. The policies that govern how the public can request and gain access to this information is also different. However it is illegal for the governing agency to not provide the information “in a timely manner.”
The Montana Constitution, Article II, Sections 7 – 10 addresses freedom of speech, expression and press; right of participation; right to know and right to privacy. The ability of the public to exert its right to participate depends upon its ability to know the actions proposed based on the information the board has prior to decisions being made.
Government agencies can close a meeting if the matter being discussed has to do with litigation strategy or an individual’s privacy. The board must disclose the general nature of the matter being discussed publicly before closing it. If the individual, whose privacy is in question, waives their right to privacy, the board must legally leave the meeting open. While the discussion can happen behind closed doors, any decision must be made in public.
Our elected officials were put in office to act as public servants and stewards of tax dollars. We hope that through your engagement in the public process our governing bodies will have the opportunity to make better decisions that reflect the will of the people they represent.