Havre Daily News
A request Tuesday night for access to e-mails sent from one Havre City Council member to another launched a debate on whether such communications are public documents.
Havre Mayor Bob Rice said he would look into how much it would cost for the state to put on a workshop on public records issues and address the question.
Freedom of Information attorney Robin Meguire said today that e-mails between City Council members regarding city business would likely be subject to public disclosure, though some arguments could be made in opposition to that, based on the specifics of any given case.
“I think that if there's an e-mail between two council members on an item of public discussion, that could be subject to public disclosure,” Meguire said.
Hill County Republican Party chair Brad Lotton requested e-mails between the city clerk's office and City Council members Pam Hillery and Allen “Woody” Woodwick regarding a bill to place an ad in the Havre Daily News announcing a retirement party for two longtime city employees.
Lotton questioned why the bill was a topic of debate by council memberswhile other bills - he's previously cited payments for a DVD player and DVDs - went unchallenged.
Hillery, who does not sit on the council's Finance Committee, said she sent an “innocuous” e-mail to Finance Committee chair Rick Pierson, asking him and the committee to review the bill for the ad. She said Lotton could review her e-mail.
Hillery said she did not believe e-mails between City Council members were public documents. She also asked whether City Council members could talk about issues over the phone.
Meguire said today that if City Council members are discussing issues and asking questions through e-mail or over the phone - rather than actually deliberating on a decision that affects the public - the argument for public disclosure becomes weaker.
Phone calls between elected officials are a particularly tricky issue, she said, because there's little chance the public will ever be able to access a phone call.
If the discussion is taking place in a conference call or if a quorum of the council is discussing an issue through e-mail, the argument that the debate should take place in an open meeting becomes much stronger, she said.
Hillery denied any political motivation behind her questioning the $153 bill for the ad, which announced a retirement party for deputy public works director Gary Schaub and wastewater treatment plant superintendent Kristi Kline.
“You made all of the issues political,” Hillery told Lotton.
Rice said the bill, which had been approved for payment by the City Council at its last meeting, was instead paid in full by someone, whom he did not name.
City clerk Lowell Swenson said there would have been no e-mails sent by his office personnel to City Council members because employees do not have members' e-mail addresses.
City Council member Emily Mayer Lossing said a presentation offered by the state Department of Administration's Professional Development Center on public document issues has kept Hill County employees informed. Mayer Lossing is a county employee.
“It was really good,” she said today. “It really kind of opened up people's eyes.”
Rice said he would look into the cost of the presentation and bring the issue back to the City Council for consideration.
Rice also said he would post City Council members' e-mail addresses at the city Web site at www.ci.havre.mt.us if council members wanted to do that.