The Montana Newspaper Association and a freedom of information group are objecting to a legislative meeting they allege was held without proper notice, but that lawmakers and legislative staff say was the result of miscommunications.
After 6 p.m. on Friday, four members — a quorum — of a joint appropriations subcommittee gathered to discuss the particulars of a task force that would be created under a bill making its way through the Legislature.
Legislative staff called the circumstances leading to the meeting being held "discombobulated.” Senate majority leadership contends the gathering was a “working group” and therefore not subject to public notice requirement.
But a letter from Helena public right-to-know attorney Michael Meloy called the meeting part of “what appears to be a serious pattern of failure to provide adequate notice of legislative meetings.”
Sent on behalf of the newspaper association and Freedom of Information Hotline, the letter also cites concerns over an unannounced hearing on a Senate bill earlier in the session.
The legislation at the center of the quagmire is House Bill 773, already destined to be contentious. It deals with the responsibility local governments and the state share in funding the Office of the Public Defender.
It originally proposed to lower the amount of money counties receive through what’s called the entitlement share to pay for public defenders, which are assigned at the local level for people who can’t afford them. After an amendment, the bill became a mandate to form a task force to look at the issue during the 21-month-long interim between legislative sessions.
Task forces cost money to coordinate and operate. Every session the Legislature passes what can be dozens of resolutions on what it wants to examine during the interim. Because it would cost too much to do all the studies the Legislature approves, lawmaker rank their top 10. But HB 773 isn't a study bill; it would by law require the task force to form and get funding.
Legislative Executive Director Susan Fox said the meeting Friday was an "attempt to get some information from legislators so we could understand what they wanted" to best prepare for the possible task force.
"I don't know how it got so discombobulated," Fox said. "It was supposed to be just a working group, but it turned into a quorum of the subcommittee. … It should be noticed."
Fox said she didn't know who called the meeting, which was listed late Thursday night on a legislative website that tracks bills' status, but was then removed Friday morning.
According to legislative rules, hearings where lawmakers take public comment on bills must be announced on the House or Senate floor, with exceptions carved out for the 10-day period before transmittal deadlines to allow for legislation to move quickly.
The subcommittee hearing held Friday falls into murkier territory because the committee was not officially assigned House Bill 773 and did not act on it, or hold a bill hearing; instead it just discussed amendments.
House Bill 773 has already passed the House and had a public hearing in that body's Appropriations committee. It had its first public hearing on the Senate side in the Finance and Claims committee Monday, where a handful of people spoke in support of the idea of creating a task force. Notice of that meeting was posted in the middle of the prior week.
Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas said in his view the proper procedure was followed with the Monday bill hearing. He called Friday's meeting a "working group" that isn't subject to the same public meeting notices bill hearings are.
“This was not a hearing. There was no hearing conducted (Friday) afternoon on this bill,” said Thomas, a Stevensville Republican. He added the meeting was broadcast on the legislative website and a TV system in the Capitol, as well as recorded, and also open to the public.
Earlier this session, a working group that met to deal with aquatic invasive species was announced on the House and Senate floors.
Thomas also emphasized the committee that met Friday did not take action on the bill or vote in any way. It did direct staff to draft amendments.
Sen. Ryan Osmundson, who chairs the Senate Finance and Claims committee that heard the bill Monday, said he hadn't been sure the Friday meeting was going to happen and that's why he didn't announce it in the Senate at the end of last week. Both the House and Senate held meetings past 5 p.m. Friday, which made some think the subcommittee wouldn't gather.
“It was more or less just to get input from the subcommittee,” Osmundson, R-Buffalo, said. “Instead of catching each one of us individually, they said, 'Let’s try to do a work group session.' … To say it was minor would be an understatement."
The other bill Meloy’s letter references is Senate Bill 366, which had a hearing in the Senate State Administration committee on March 27. The bill was added to the agenda at the last minute, so late it wasn't listed on a printout posted outside the meeting room in the Capitol.
However, because that hearing was four days from a transmittal deadline, it fell under a provision of the Senate rules that removes the requirement for noticing a bill hearing within 10 days of that deadline.
Senate President Scott Sales, a Bozeman Republican, said legislators also share the frustration of bills getting late or unnoticed hearings.
“Unfortunately a lot of it’s not up to us,” Sales said. “It’s individual legislators that procrastinate getting their bills introduced in a timely fashion, and that puts us in a rush to get them assigned to committee.”
Meloy's letter asks for an explanation of how the Friday meeting was organized. It also asks for an “acknowledgement that the actions violated legislative, statutory and constitutional protections and should not have occurred” and demands “assurances that this won’t happen in the future.”