Havre Daily News
Prior to a meeting Wednesday between the Havre City Council and two local government consultants, Mayor Bob Rice told a Havre Daily News reporter that the educational session would be closed to the public and the media. A Havre resident was also told he could not attend the meeting.
A Freedom of Information Hotline lawyer contacted by the Havre Daily News said that any attempt to close the meeting would have violated state law. At least three City Council members agree.
Later Wednesday morning, Rice told the reporter that he would leave the issue of a closed or open meeting to the City Council members and presenters.
When the meeting actually began, the issue wasn't brought up. Residents and members of the media were able to attend the meeting, a visit from Local Government Center co-founders Ken Weaver and Judy Mathre at the request of city officials to discuss the possibility of drafting a city charter.
State law requires that all City Council meetings be open, except in a few specific cases, Freedom of Information Hotline lawyer Robin Meguire said Wednesday. Those exceptions are in cases where a person's right to privacy exceeds the public's right to know, and in meetings where a governing body discusses litigation strategy.
"It would definitely be required to be open, subject to the exceptions ..., but none of them were an issue," Meguire said.
Rice said after the meeting that he had attempted to close the doors to the public and press on the advice of City Attorney Jim Kaze. Kaze did not return several calls seeking comment.
Rice also said City Council member Jack Brandon had spoken with someone on the state level about whether the meeting would have to be open.
Brandon said Wednesday afternoon that he talked to state Legislative Services Division director Greg Petesch about a number of issues, but didn't want to comment on the conversation.
Brandon said he does not believe the meeting should have been closed.
"There was no reason to have a closed meeting," Brandon said. "I thoroughly respect the public's right to know."
Rice said he wanted to close the meeting in order to give City Council members adequate time to ask questions without interruption.
"I wanted this to be a training session," he said. "(Kaze) told me that was acceptable. I didn't want any interruptions. It had nothing to do with the public knowing. It was an interaction between the council and Ken (Weaver) that I felt was important. Normally when you have an open meeting, people ask questions. I wanted good quality time."
The city also did not post notice of the meeting.
Rice said the meeting was mentioned at a July 22 City Council meeting. There was no other prior notice of the meeting given to the Havre Daily News or the public. Rice said it was not publicized because he intended to close the meeting.
The newspaper learned about the meeting from resident Charlie Grant, after Grant had been told he would not be allowed to attend.
Five of the eight members of the City Council were present at the meeting. According to state law, the meeting should have been properly noticed to the public and the media because there was a quorum, or simple majority, of the group present to hear, discuss or act upon a matter, Meguire said.
City Council member Allen "Woody" Woodwick agreed that the meeting should be open to the public.
"I think any business conducted by the city is open to the public, and if I'm not mistaken, we recently had some lawsuits over that," Woodwick said. "To avoid any other legal actions, we need to keep all of our meetings open to the public and aboveboard."
City Council member Tom Farnham said: "Of course it should have been an open meeting, under the Montana Sunshine Law."
City Council member Terry Schend said he is still unclear on what constitutes an official meeting.
"It was not my understanding that it had to be an open meeting," Schend said today. "It really probably was considered a meeting. I didn't have any issue either way."
Schend said he, Rice and Brandon talked about the issue before the meeting began, and Brandon brought up the issue of a quorum.
"Jack did indicate that if there was a quorum, it needs to be considered an open meeting," Schend said.
Weaver, a former Bozeman mayor, would not comment on Rice's attempt to close the meeting, but did offer an opinion on Montana law.
"The open meeting law is taken very seriously in this state ... by the press and the public," Weaver said.
Petesch said today that he vaguely recalls a discussion with Brandon, but it did not concern whether a meeting of a majority of council members should be open or closed.
"Trying to define a meeting is difficult, but I don't think it is if you're gathering a quorum of the council," Petesch said. "Convening a quorum of the council is a meeting. There's no question about that."
Petesch said he does recall discussing whether staff meetings with consultants should be open or closed. Some state laws and court decisions regarding open meetings involving staffers are unclear, he added.