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Private prison committee must meet in public, disclose records

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  1. Freedom of Information
MONTANA--A state committee appointed to evaluate proposals for the construction of a private prison must conduct its meetings in public…

MONTANA–A state committee appointed to evaluate proposals for the construction of a private prison must conduct its meetings in public and provide access to records associated with the selection process, the Montana Supreme Court in Helena ruled 6-1 in late May.

The court held unconstitutional a state law which provides that the contents of contract proposals may not be disclosed until after the contract has been executed.

The application of that law violates Article II, Section 9, of the Montana Constitution, which guarantees the public the right to examine documents and observe deliberations of state agencies, the court said.

Rejecting the Department of Corrections’ contention that secrecy in the selection process helps the state get “the best deal,” the court found that “economic advantage is not a sufficient reason for denying the public the opportunity to observe the deliberations of public bodies and inspect public documents.”

In April 1998, the Great Falls Tribune asked the district court in Helena to prohibit the Private Prison Screening and Evaluation Committee from holding its meetings in private and to require it to open to public inspection all documents associated with the deliberations.

The district court held that the meetings could be closed, but that once negotiations were completed, the selection process must be open to the public. Both parties appealed. (Great Falls Tribune Co. v. Day; Media Counsel: Michael Meloy, Helena)