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University officials' informal meetings ruled open

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    News Media Update         MONTANA         Freedom of Information    

University officials’ informal meetings ruled open

  • The Supreme Court of Montana ruled that meetings of high-ranking public university officials must be open to the public.

May 11, 2004 — The meetings of an informal committee of public university officials must be open to the public under the state constitution and open records laws, the Supreme Court of Montana ruled last week.

From June 1999 to December 2001, Commissioner of Higher Education Richard Crofts held meetings with high-ranking university system employees, such as presidents and chancellors. The group was alternately called the Policy Committee and the Senior Management Group.

Crofts used the meetings to discuss and seek input on matters of university system policy, including tuition, budgeting, contractual issues, employee salaries and legislation. The committee had no fixed membership, did not vote on propositions or take direct action, and was not established under any specific charter or law. However, its members did participate in their official capacities and were paid with public funds.

On Feb. 1, 2002, an Associated Press reporter entered a committee meeting prior to its commencement and requested to observe discussions. Crofts refused. When the reporter would not leave, Crofts cancelled the meeting.

The deliberations of public bodies are required to be open to the public by the state constitution, as implemented through Montana’s open meetings laws.

A week later, the AP, joined by 13 Montana news media organizations, filed a lawsuit in the First Judicial District Court in Helena. In January 2003, Judge Thomas Honzel granted their request for a declaration that the meetings are subject to the open records law, and enjoined Crofts from closing the meetings in the future.

Crofts appealed to the state Supreme Court, which affirmed the ruling, 5-2, on May 4.

Montana’s high court concluded that a number of factors must be considered when determining if such a committee is subject to the open records laws, including but not limited to: whether committee members are public employees; whether meetings are paid for by public funds; the frequency of the meetings; whether the committee deliberates or just gathers facts; whether the meetings concern policy or just administrative matters; whether members have executive authority; and the result of the meetings.

“In this case, while the Policy Committee was not formally created by a government entity to accomplish a specific function,” wrote Justice John Warner for the majority, it “was organized to serve a public purpose.

“Devices such as not fixing a specific membership of a body, not adopting formal rules, not keeping minutes . . . and not requiring formal votes, must not be allowed to defeat the constitutional and statutory provisions which require that the public’s business be openly conducted,” he added.

No meetings of the committee have been held since the controversy arose. Commissioner Sheila Stearns, who replaced Crofts last summer, told the AP that she would not comment on the case, but that she accepts the ruling.

(Associated Press v. Crofts; Media Counsel: Ronald F. Waterman, Gough, Shanahan, Johnson & Waterman, Helena, Mont.) GP

© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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