Havre Daily News
Tribal leaders across Montana said they can't think of a reason why they would close council meetings to the media except to discuss personnel issues or ongoing negotiations.
The Havre Daily News questioned tribal leaders in Montana about their open meeting practices after the Rocky Boy tribal council on Friday banned the newspaper from council meetings. The council did so because it objected to a story published by the newspaper.
Ron Trahan, vice chair of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council, laughed at the idea when asked if his council had ever barred a reporter, and then said no.
Trahan said he couldn't think of a reason to close council meetings, which are sometimes attended by reporters from the Missoulian and the Tobacco Valley News. Trahan said reporters are welcome "as long as they are civil. It's just like anything else."
Jackie Weeks has worked for the Fort Peck Indian Reservation for 28 years, the last 12 years in administration. She couldn't recall a time when the press was kept out of a meeting, though she said portions of meetings have been closed to discuss personnel issues or business or contract negotiations.
Weeks said meetings are periodically attended by a Great Falls Tribune reporter. Occasionally the Billings Gazette will also send a reporter to a meeting, she said.
"Open meetings are open meetings," said Fort Belknap Indian Reservation tribal council chair Julia Doney about the possibility of excluding reporters.
Council meetings are open to the public and regularly attended by a reporter from the Fort Belknap News, Doney said. She could not recall an instance of a reporter from outside the reservation attending a meeting, but said the meetings would remain open.
The Rocky Boy tribal council, officially known as the Business Committee, barred the Havre Daily News from its meetings after an Aug. 31 story reported that the council was considering changes to the tribe's enrollment policies that would allow nonenrolled grandchildren of members to join. The council also wants to address the blood quantum requirement for tribal membership.
The tribe's constitution says: "All regular meetings of the Business Committee shall be open to the public, but visitors may not interfere with proceedings, and may only speak with the consent of the Chairman."
Tribal attorney Dan Belcourt said the tribe has the authority to bar the press and that the news story about enrollment fit the description of "interfering."
Council members complained that the article appeared before the policy was finalized.
The council first discussed the changes during the summer and then approved a first reading of themembership ordinance in August. A copy of that draft was not made available to the Havre Daily News when a reporter requested it.
Belcourt said the tribal enrollment committee will hold a meeting Friday to discuss the proposed changes.
Alan Parker, a professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and an enrolled member at Rocky Boy, teaches a graduate-level course in the operation and organization of tribal governments. Parker's course emphasizes the importance of open meetings, he said.
"Open government is a standard of good practice," said Parker, a former attorney for the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.
He said the community benefits from having the newspaper covering tribal council meeting and that the Rocky Boy council shouldn't have banned the Daily News. "They have to follow their own rules," he said about the council.
Parker also found fault with Belcourt's explanation of why the council has the right to close a meeting to reporters.
"With all due respect to my dear cousin Dan, that's BS," Parker said.
The newspaper's recourse is tribal court, Parker said.
Havre Daily News publisher Harvey Brock said today the newspaper has not made a decision about whether it will take the matter to tribal court and is "exploring our options." Freedom of Information Hotline attorney Robin Meguire said Montana's open meeting laws do not apply to tribes.