By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
Havre Mayor Bob Rice attempted Tuesday to hold a closed door meeting with a committee of the City Council about an unfair labor practice complaint filed against the city.
Rice abruptly said the meeting of the City Council's Labor Relations Committee was adjourned when a Havre Daily News reporter refused to leave the meeting.
Rice said Wednesday he was advised by the city attorney that he could close the meeting because "litigation strategy" was going to be discussed.
However, John Andrew, labor standards bureau chief at the state Department of Labor and Industry in Helena, said Wednesday that an unfair labor practice complaint is not litigation. Andrew's office handles complaints of unfair labor practice, including the one filed recently by the Havre police officers.
John Schontz, attorney for the Montana Freedom of Information Hotline, said the meeting should not have been closed to the public.
He noted that a public entity can close a public meeting to discuss litigation strategy if it has been sued by a nonpublic entity.
"Litigation means a lawsuit," he said, adding that the statute allowing a closed meeting cannot be used in a situation that is only potentially a lawsuit.
City Council member Allen "Woody" Woodwick, a member of the Labor Relations Committee, said today he thinks the mayor should not have closed the meeting.
"He's not a member of the committee," Woodwick said. "We take his input, but he's not a member of the committee. Nor does he have a vote, or the power to call or adjourn a meeting."
Woodwick said he was not sure if the meeting could legally be closed.
"It's a fine line there. There's only a few circumstances in which we can close a meeting," he said.
Rice requested the meeting with the Labor Relations Committee to discuss a complaint filed with the state Board of Personnel Appeals by the union representing 17 Havre police officers. The complaint accuses the city of offering to pay half of this year's 45 percent increase in police officers' health insurance premiums and then not following through on a verbal commitment.
In a written response sent to the board Tuesday, the city said the verbal commitment was never made.
The meeting about the complaint was scheduled for 7 p.m. at City Hall. The reporter and three committee members were sitting in the room about 7 p.m. when Rice entered.
He told the reporter the meeting was closed because it was to discuss "litigation strategy."
When the reporter refused to leave, Rice said, "Meeting's adjourned," and left the room.
He later told the reporter he had only called the meeting to give the committee members copies of documents related to the complaint, which were already in the reporter's possession. He offered to provide the reporter with copies of anything related to the matter.
Wednesday he said he wanted to close the meeting because people might have said things they shouldn't.
"Because in the course of a conversation ... that tends to happen. They lose awareness of where they're at and they say things they probably shouldn't have said," he said.
"I'm trying to get this thing solved and resolved as quick as possible with the least possible inconvenience for both sides," he added.
Rice said City Attorney Mary VanBuskirk gives him guidelines on when he can close meetings. He said VanBuskirk spoke to him specifically about the Tuesday meeting, and that she had told him he could close it.
Rice made contradictory statements about his reason for closing the meeting. On Tuesday night he said the meeting would be closed for "litigation strategy," but on Wednesday morning Rice said that "labor negotiations and labor strategy" was his reason for closing the meeting.
"She (VanBuskirk) told me it was labor negotiations and labor strategy and that I could close it," Rice said.
On Wednesday afternoon Rice said he could not remember the exact words he used Tuesday night.
"Maybe I used the word litigation. I think I said labor negotiations strategy," he said.
Litigation strategy and collective-bargaining strategy are two different categories under state law. The Montana Supreme Court ruled in 1992 that meetings cannot be closed to discuss collective bargaining strategy, Shontz said.
During an interview Wednesday, Rice threatened to begin speaking to the reporter only in person.
"This morning I told you you need to come to City Hall," he said. "I think you could at least give me the courtesy of coming to City Hall."
When pressed for a reason, Rice replied, "Because I think I'm going to start giving you what I'm going to say in writing. That way we don't have any confusion with semantics with what I say."
"I don't remember what I did say, and I don't remember exactly what Mary told me," he added.
Rice called back a short while later and said he had checked with one of the committee members, and that litigation strategy was the term he had used on Tuesday night.
Andrew, the state labor standards bureau chief, said Wednesday that an unfair labor practice complaint may eventually go to district court, but is not itself a lawsuit.
VanBuskirk said she would not discuss any legal advice her firm gives its clients, but she said that she considers the unfair labor practice complaint to be litigation.
Labor Relations Committee chair Jack Brandon said today he doesn't think Rice violated the open meeting law. Rice just decided not to have a meeting, he added.
Rice said he would not attempt to have the meeting again.
"We're done," he said.