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AG says courts seek public access, involvement

| September 29, 2004 12:00 AM

By Roger Morris, Western News Publisher

All community groups and committees should err on the liberal side for compliance with state open meeting and open records laws, said state attorney general Mike McGrath during a special meeting Thursday night in Libby.

³I try to err on the side of public disclosure but there are no easy answers,² McGrath said.

The public¹s right to know and the right of the individual to privacy are next to each other in the state constitution, he said.

³They¹re deliberately intended that way,² McGrath said. ³What you have to do is find the balance. It makes for a lot of tension.²

McGrath said the subject of open meetings and open records was raised last year by the Montana Newspaper Association in a statewide survey of records access and published stories on those results. Also, there have been numerous lawsuits involving open records and the right of privacy.

³There are things that I think can help,² McGrath said. ³Trainings and sessions like this are important. Communication between members of the press and members of government is important, too. A lot of times, if you have dialogue, you can work it out.²

An important part of the constitution is the public¹s right to know and it also covers the public¹s right to participate in government, McGrath said.

³That involves adequate notice of a meeting so they can participate,² he said. ³The courts say that has to be liberally construed to promote participation.²

McGrath said public access to documents should be treated the same way.

³There are consequences to public officials who deny the public¹s right to know and right to participate,² he said.

The open meeting law is not restricted to elected officials or entities receiving public funds, McGrath said.

Paul Rumelhart, director of the Kootenai River Development Council, which administers KRDC, the Libby Area Development Company and the Port Authority, asked about the privacy of financial records for businesspeople seeking loans or relocation help.

³It¹s a tough, tough situation,² McGrath said. ³I think the court would say yes, (it¹s public record).

³A board, as a general rule, has a duty to meet, discuss and decide. That¹s how the courts describe it,² McGrath said. ³The point is you have to make an affirmative effort on points of disclosure.²

McGrath also said the governmental agencies are required to provide public comment periods during public meetings. But it doesn¹t require the public to participate in discussion on every line item or to ask questions on every line item, he said.

McGrath recommended a public comment period at the end of the meeting with a limit to two or three minutes per person.

On public records, he said, ³err on the side of openness.²

³You do not have to drop everything you are doing,² he continued. ³It has to be reasonable request and the response should be in a responsible time.²

Also, public groups or boards can meet for meals but they can¹t make decisions, ³that has to be done in public session,² he said.

³You take these rules and apply common sense,² he said. ³If it¹s a big deal, you leave it open.²