By MELODY MARTINSEN/Choteau Acantha
Most city officials in Montana willingly provide citizens with minutes of their city council or city commission meetings - if those minutes have at least been typed into ''draft'' form.
Citizens participating in a statewide check of access to public records this summer requested copies of the minutes of the city council or city commission's most recent meeting in Montana's 56 county seats.
The citizens got minutes from one of the last two meetings in 52 of the counties. But only in 35 communities did they get the current minutes, even in draft or audiotape form. Another 17 city clerks, or 30 percent, did not have the notes from the most recent meeting put into minute form, but they offered the citizens copies of the completed minutes of the previous meeting.
In most cases, the clerks and city officials were characterized by the surveyors as friendly and helpful. Many were curious about why surveyors were seeking the records.
A few were openly suspicious and were reluctant to comply with the requests.
In three cities - Polson, Philipsburg and Butte - municipal officials would not release minutes in note or draft form. In one town, Terry, the city office was closed during the noon hour when the surveyor arrived to request the records.
Of the 52 city clerks that provided the information, 42, or 81 percent, complied with the auditor's first request.
Montana law requires any board or agency covered by the state's open-meetings provisions to keep minutes of its meetings and to make the minutes available to the public. Montana court rulings require officials to provide both draft and final versions of public documents to citizens.
Billings City Clerk Marita Herold was one of the many cooperative city officials who were asked to provide minutes. She not only supplied the surveyor with the document as requested, but she also provided dates of future Billings City Council meetings and the address of the city's Web site, where all minutes are posted. ''It's all open to the public,'' Herold said.
Brenda Schneider, the Superior town clerk and treasurer, was also characterized by the surveyor as friendly and helpful. At first she told the surveyor that she could not provide copies because her photocopier was broken, but then she managed to coax the sickly machine to spit out the needed copies at no charge. In tiny Winnett, the city clerk readily provided copies of the minutes but also pointed out that the minutes are routinely posted on a bulletin board near the front door.
However, several clerks were suspicious of the request and at first were reluctant to provide citizens with copies of draft minutes versions that had been typed but not yet approved by city councils. Most of those officials, however, provided even draft copies on second or third request.
Tammy Cahill, Scobey's city clerk, said the draft minutes were ''not official,'' but when the citizen requested the draft copies, she furnished them without any trouble.
Agnes Fowler, Conrad's finance officer, however, required the citizen requesting the records to give her name and where she worked before she would consider allowing draft minutes to leave the office. Fowler also said she would have to call the city attorney for authorization, but at that point, the mayor intervened and directed her to give the citizen copies of the draft documents. Virginia Yardley, who in June was the Philipsburg city clerk, did not provide minutes of the current council meeting, saying that the council does not consider the minutes public until they have been approved at the next month's meeting. Yardley since has retired as city clerk.
Aggi Loeser, Polson city clerk, said she had not yet typed the notes from the last City Council meeting into minute form. She would not provide the notes when asked, but agreed to mail them when she completed them by the next week.