By CAROLYNN BRIGHT/Independent Record
Most professional organizations representing government officials make a concerted effort to educate their members about what information is public and what is private, and the effort appears to pay off, a statewide survey to measure citizens' access to public records shows.
Members of groups such as those representing court clerks, school boards and county treasurers that tutor their members on public records rules were more likely to provide the information to the public, the survey found. On the other hand, law enforcement, which gets little such training, was the least likely to turn over public records.
The statewide survey was part of a project Montana news organizations conducted this summer to test how well government officials in all 56 counties comply with the state's open records laws.
Court clerks and county treasurers had some of the highest compliance rates.
''We do make an effort to get the information out there,'' said Paulette DeHart of Helena, president of the Montana Association of Clerks and Recorders. ''It's up to the individual to take it home and utilize it.''
Members of the association, along with members of the Montana County Treasurers' Association and the Montana Association of Clerks of District Court, all receive training in open records requirements, which is bolstered by discussions at annual conventions. The Montana School Boards Association provides its members with handbooks that spell out privacy issues that may come up.
But officials also rely on each other a lot to sort out the gray areas.
''We can always call another clerk of court for questions on specific types of information,'' said Cheryle Demmon, president of the court clerks' organization.
In more than 90 percent of the counties, surveyors received the public information requested from school administrators, clerks and recorders, court clerks and county treasurers.
But results were different in sheriff's offices, where personnel get little formal training in public records issues. Forty-five percent of the state's county sheriffs or their staff did not provide jail rosters, and 41 percent refused to provide incident reports for the previous 24 hours. Both records are public under state law.
Greg Hintz, president of the Montana Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, said individual counties often set their own policies regarding the release of information. Those policies, he said, are established with assistance from the Attorney General's Office and under the direction of city and county attorneys.
The release of public information is covered briefly as part of a 40-hour course offered to new sheriffs, but it's up to individual sheriffs and their advisers to determine how to translate that information, Hintz said.
''I know everybody's getting the same information - it's just what they do with it when they get home,'' Hintz said.
The Montana Association of Counties organizes a special orientation workshop every two years for newly elected county officials. The workshop includes sessions on the public's right to attend meetings and review documents, said Jack Holstrom, an attorney and personnel services administrator for the association.
While the workshops are usually well-attended, Holstrom said they rarely attract any new sheriffs.
''Mostly it's newly elected county commissioners,'' he said.
New law enforcement officers receive training at the Montana Law Enforcement Academy, but that training does not cover the release of public information. Howard Webb, administrator of the school, said the academy's course is relatively short and the trainees aren't expected to be in a position to release information when they report for duty anyway.
Mike Batista, administrator of the state Division of Criminal Investigation, said different training opportunities are available for law enforcement officers as they progress through the ranks of the departments, with courses offered by the state and FBI. However, responsibility for using that training falls to the individual departments, he said.
Montana Attorney General Mike McGrath said the state Justice Department, which oversees the academy, is constantly scrutinizing freedom-of-information issues and how to balance the public's right to know with the right to privacy. But, McGrath said, more may need to be done.
''It's the kind of thing we should be looking at with administrators,'' he said, adding that the release of public information is a priority, and if problems need to be addressed, his office is willing to do that.
Batista agreed that training regarding the release of information by officers may be an area that could be improved.
The news organization survey ''does definitely speak to a training need, whether it's offered as basic or as advanced training,'' he said.
For any group or individual that wants to take the initiative to become better versed in what information is public, the state offers ongoing training in areas including open meeting laws and public records for willing participants. John Moore, director of the Department of Administration's Professional Development Center, is constantly on the move offering instruction to groups whose grasp of the public vs. privacy issue runs the gamut.
''For a lot of people on the front line, the big challenge is to figure out what is releasable and what is not,'' Moore said. ''In my experience, for the most part, people want to do the right thing.''
Moore added that law enforcement officers appear to face that problem on a larger scale than many other public officials and it isn't always easy to discern what needs to be released to members of the public.
As a result, he teaches classes geared directly to law enforcement issues in order to address that problem.Those courses are accredited and can be applied to continuing legal education for officers who attend either individually or by referral from their respective departments.
''Training is always available,'' Moore added. ''Whether people take advantage of that is the question.''