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Montana information audit raises concerns about public access

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    NMU         MONTANA         Freedom of Information    

Montana information audit raises concerns about public access

  • More than one-third of the requests for information from sheriff departments were denied, while nearly all court information requests were granted.

Nov. 3, 2003 — A recently released freedom of information audit in Montana found law enforcement agencies leery of giving out public information on request. The statewide survey showed courts to be extremely responsive.

Montana citizens and journalists made information requests across the state’s 56 counties, seeking various public records from local agencies. Several advocacy groups and nearly every news organization in the state — approximately 35 different media groups, including The Associated Press, the Montana Newspaper Association and the Montana Freedom of Information Hotline, which spearheaded the effort — was involved in the project.

“This is the first time in Montana, to my knowledge, that [a project] has really tried to include such a broad array of news organizations,” said Bob Anez, an AP writer who compiled the survey information. “We wanted to use familiar names and faces in their communities.”

The records sought from each county were jail occupancy rosters; sheriff department incident reports; the amount of property taxes paid by the chairman of the county commission; the salary of the superintendent of the largest school district in each county; minutes of the most recent meeting of the city council or town commission; and listings of recent court cases filed in district court and a randomly selected court file. All records were sought last summer.

The court clerks and county treasurers had some of the highest compliance rates, while the law enforcement end of the open-government spectrum was not as forthcoming.

Certain sheriff’s offices charged exorbitant fees for public records. The Helena Independent Record reported that The Lewis and Clark County sheriff’s office charges citizens $5 for every single-page incident report. With 125 to 150 incidents in a daily report, the cost could exceed $625. In Daniels County, the sheriff said he would not let anyone see his list of recent crime calls without a court order.

More than one-third of the requests for information from sheriff departments were denied, while nearly all court information requests were granted, the report found.

“I hope that there is some enlightenment to come out of it,” Bill Wilke, chairman of the Montana Associated Press Editors and Publishers Association and editor of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, said in an AP story, “and that law enforcement officers realize their open government obligations are not designed just to make their jobs miserable.”

AS


© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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