Wednesday, July 24, 2024
73.0°F

The accessibility of our right to know

| June 25, 2024 7:00 AM

The framers of our state Constitution crafted the Right to Know to help create more responsive, open, and accountable state and local governments. Along with the vote, our power to access government information is our check on the government. 

Through this right we have the power to exercise oversight, meaningfully participate in decision making and make educated decisions when we vote. The Right to Know ensures that the people stay in control of government.

But the Right to Know only promotes good government if the people can exercise that Right. Unfortunately, our government can obstruct and effectively deny our Right to Know by charging exorbitant “fees” for completing requests.

Fees are costs an agency charges you to fulfill a request; they can be reasonable, like printing costs, or unreasonable, like hundreds or thousands of dollars in staff time for what should be a relatively simple request.

This possibility of high fees deters many Montanans from seeking information and prevents them from accessing public records, which undermines the fundamental purpose of this constitutional right. Furthermore, high fees disproportionately affect individuals and organizations with limited financial resources, perpetuating economic inequity.

When fees are high, it limits the public's ability to stay informed and participate in decision-making processes. An informed citizenry is essential for a healthy democracy, and exorbitant fees threaten this by making information less accessible. 

Combining this with the high cost of litigating your Right to Know in court–a topic for a future column–the state can effectively avoid consequences of violating the Montana Constitution’s Right to Know.

Government agencies ought to mitigate fees for public information requests, only charging what is absolutely necessary. It is up to us all, the citizens of Montana, to recognize when agency fees are unreasonable, and to demand better from our government.

In this spirit, Montana Transparency Project has requested from all major state executive agencies the current and most recent prior versions of the agencies’ public information request fee schedules and any documents detailing the policies or procedures for estimating the time and cost of fulfilling an information request. Included are the offices of all statewide elected officials.

The requested information is essential to better understanding how our state government assesses fees and responds to individuals in the information request process. As soon as we receive responses, we’ll make the information available on our website. 

We are hopeful that the requests will be fulfilled quickly and will show good-faith efforts to satisfy the Montana Constitution’s requirement that government information be made readily available to the public.

We hope to better educate ourselves and the public so we can work together in making the Right to Know accessible for all. Montana’s unique and fundamental Right to Know rests on the public’s understanding of the Right and knowledge of how to use it–something the Montana Transparency Project is working to expand.

Visit our website at montanatransparencyproject.org. If you have questions, comments, column topics you’d like us to address, or if you want to submit your own information request, contact us at info@montanatransparencyproject.org and we would be happy to help!