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Keep government open

Keep government open

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When Montanans elect people to make policy and provide services, they expect those government officials to work hard for the public good. Montanans also gave themselves a great insurance policy that guarantees they can check up on their public servants.

In the Montana Constitution, Article II, Section 8, guarantees the right of participation to the public: “The public has the right to expect government agencies to afford such reasonable opportunity for citizen participation in the operation of the agencies prior to the final decision as may be provided by law.”

Article II, Section 9, guarantees the right to know: “No person shall be deprived of the right to examine documents or to observe the deliberations of all public bodies or agencies of the state government and its subdivisions, except in cases where the demand of individual privacy clearly exceeds the merits of public disclosure.”

Montana statutes spell out open government requirements:

The mandate “shall be liberally construed” in favor of openness and applies to all public boards, commissions, councils and public agencies.

A meeting is a quorum of the public agency hearing, discussing or acting on a matter over which the agency has control or advisory power.

All meetings of governmental bodies must be open to the public and the public must have the opportunity to comment on any item, even if it isn’t on the agenda.

This includes City Council and County Commission meetings as well as any committee or board appointed by the council or commission. The open meetings mandates apply to the Legislature, too.

Government agencies may charge fees for the actual time and material used to access data. But government cannot deny access to paper or electronic records.

That law mandates public access to email from state and local government computers, but Yellowstone County last year was on the brink of cutting off access.

The huge volume of email in the county system and the difficulty of retrieving archive email prompted county commissioners to say that all email should automatically be deleted after a certain number of days.

Obviously, destruction of public records would deny public access to the documents. The Gazette protested this policy change.

Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito also recognized that wholesale destruction of public email would be against open records law. Twito convened a committee that included members of his staff as well as county informational technology specialists, a Gazette representative and Commissioner Jim Reno. Further study of the email situation revealed that the cumbersome, inadequate archiving and retrieval system was a problem for county workers as well as for public access. The IT staff researched possible solutions and proposed a system that would update the county and manage email for years to come at a reasonable cost. The new system will make email retrieval fast for county employees and for public inquiries. Email will be preserved rather than being automatically deleted.

It’s a win for the citizens of Yellowstone County.

The County Commission approved the new system and installation is nearing completion. The next step will be training all county employees to use the new system and to follow protocols on proper use of county email.

Twito’s staff will be trained first, probably later this month, and then assist in training other departments. Deputy county attorneys have the additional responsibility of reviewing public document requests to determine whether anything should be withheld as confidential criminal justice information or because personal privacy outweighs public interest.

We are gratified that Twito and the County Commission recognized the imperative of public access to public documents. As newspapers across the United States observe Sunshine Week, The Billings Gazette is pleased to report that the people’s right to know has been upheld in the case of county email.

As your community newspaper, The Gazette takes seriously its responsibility to hold government accountable. The most powerful tool for accountability is sunshine: the open government provisions of our state constitution and statutes.

— The Billings Gazette

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