NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · MONTANA · Freedom of Information · March 14, 2006
Citizen must show harm caused by open meeting violation
March 14, 2006 · A citizen who could not show direct harm from secret school board meetings to hire a new superintendent had no grounds to sue under the open meetings law, the Montana Supreme Court ruled, affirming a lower court’s dismissal of her case.
The ruling could mean that journalists who do not give a reason for viewing public records and attending public meetings in Montana could now be denied access to them, according to Mike Meloy, an attorney who works with the state’s Freedom of Information Hotline.
Bruceen Fleenor, a resident of the county where the Darby School District is located, sued the district after she was not notified of a series of meetings in June 2004 in which a new superintendent was selected. Her lawsuit sought to void the decisions — including the superintendent’s hiring — made in those meetings, which violated the law because they were not properly publicized, the Great Falls Tribune reported.
The Montana Constitution guarantees the public the right to observe government meetings and to review public documents.
In her argument to the state’s appeals court, Fleenor argued that the school board’s failure “to provide her proper notice of the decisions and votes of the District constitutes a violation of her constitutional rights to know and to participate.”
The school district argued that Fleenor did not “clearly allege past, present, or threatened injury to a property or civil right” and did not show that any injury that was “distinguishable from the injury to the public generally.”
The issue before the state Supreme Court was whether the Ravalli County District Court in Hamilton, Mont., correctly dismissed the case for lack of standing.
“While the allegation of membership within the school district is a good start toward establishing standing, it is not, on its own, enough,” Judge Patricia O’Brien Cotter wrote for the court.
The Feb. 14 ruling gives government entities another reason to deny access to meetings and records, Meloy said. “The court in Fleenor and in other cases hasn’t really articulated what kind of an interest you need to get into court, there isn’t any real guidance for the public entity in exercising their discretion — and when there is no guidance, my experience has been that public entities or custodians will err on the side of secrecy,” and will prevent access to meetings and documents, he said.
(Fleenor v. Darby School District et al; Media Counsel: Jason Harkins, Harkins Law Firm P.C., Billings, Mont.) — KV