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School boards assail open-meeting ruling

 


HELENA - A court ruling earlier this year that opened to the public meetings of top officials of the Montana university system should be overturned so it won't apply to meetings of school superintendents and principals, the Montana School Boards' Association says.

The organization has told the state Supreme Court that existing law is enough to ensure the public's right to know what government is doing and to participate in the process.

''There is no basis for extending these rights to the extent provided in the District Court's order,'' the association said in written arguments filed with the high court.

The position taken by the education group sides with that of the university system and the state Justice Department in urging the justices to throw out the lower-court judgment in a lawsuit filed by 14 news organizations.

The case involves what higher education officials call ''senior management'' meetings of university system leaders, including the commissioner of higher education and the campus presidents and chancellors.

Attorneys for the university system argued that the state's open meetings law cannot apply to the gatherings, because the group does not legally exist. It was not created by any law or regulation, has shifting membership, meets at irregular times, takes no votes and seldom keeps minutes.

The news organizations, however, said the commissioner alone has so much authority to issue rules and regulations that he constitutes an ''agency'' by himself and, therefore, his meetings must be open to the public to comply with the constitutional guarantee of the public's right to know.

District Judge Thomas Honzel of Helena agreed with the news media, saying the gatherings may not involve a formal state agency or board but still represent meetings of a public body.

Elizabeth Kaleva, attorney for the school boards' association, said that broad conclusion creates a ''one-size-fits-all solution'' for a variety of government agencies.

The ruling could apply to superintendents and principals, even though they take no actions that cannot be appealed for a final decision by local boards of trustees, she said. State law already guarantees the public a chance to be involved in those boards' decision-making, Kaleva added.

She said the Supreme Court should either overturn Honzel's ruling or clarify it so that school districts don't have to provide public notice of meetings of school administrators.

The news organizations have yet to file their response with the court.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit are The Associated Press, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, The Montana Standard, Missoulian, Great Falls Tribune, Montana Newspaper Association, Montana Broadcasters Association, The Billings Gazette, The Daily Inter Lake, Montana Television Network, Eagle Television Network, Havre Daily News, Helena Independent Record and Yellowstone Newspapers.

 

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