Impact of public records project called profound
HELENA - The news media's statewide audit of access to public records will have a profound impact on the right of citizens to know what government is doing in Montana, journalists were told Saturday.
John Shontz, the lead attorney for the media-funded Montana Freedom of Information Hotline, said the survey has resulted in a flood of calls to his office from citizens denied access to government records and meetings.
Calls to the hotline increased from an average of about eight a month last year to six calls a day after the news media published and broadcast results of the government records audit Oct. 22, Shontz said.
Most of the calls were from citizens, Shontz told journalists from around the state attending an Investigative Reporters and Editors workshop.
''People did not know what the law is'' before the records survey, the attorney said. ''Three people called in tears after they found out the law was on their side.
''I am convinced the audit and the stories about it has had a profound impact on the people of Montana.''
The audit was organized last summer by Montana's news media, who visited all 56 of Montana's county seats and asked for six types of records that are public under state law. Results were published and broadcast on Oct. 22.
Auditors, many of them citizens from other counties, received the records 81 percent of the time. But sheriffs' offices were the biggest violators of public records laws, refusing to release initial offense reports or rosters of county jail inmates in more than four of 10 requests.
Mike McInally, editor of the Missoulian, said the most disturbing thing about the audit was when sheriffs said they knew the records were public, but they still refused to show them to the auditors.
Referring to a $5 per page charge for copies of initial incident reports in Lewis and Clark County, McInally said that ''I can see in the future where cash-starved governments will charge more for public information.''
Journalists must be more aggressive in protecting the public's right to know, McInally said. ''We ignore the call to be watchdogs in Montana at our peril.''
Shontz agreed that the media and public must protest high charges for government records, noting that the Pledge of Allegiance does not end with ''liberty and justice for all who can afford it.''
Associated Press Political Writer Bob Anez, who chaired a panel discussing the records audit, created most of the computer data bases that were used to evaluate the huge volume of information.
''What struck me was the antagonistic and hostile reaction from many sheriffs'' when public records were requested, Anez said.
Eric Newhouse, projects editor for the Great Falls Tribune, recalled how difficult it was to get some records in the Liberty County seat of Chester, ''where everybody knew everybody and nobody knew me.''
Newhouse said he was having trouble getting some records until the sheriff's office did a computer search of his name and discovered who he was. It appears, Newhouse said, that ''If you go in with a press pass you can get a lot more (government information) than a guy off a tractor in Montana.''
Sometimes it is necessary to sue government agencies if they violate public access laws, said Helena attorney Mike Meloy, who has represented the news media in numerous freedom of information cases.
''Sue them if you have to, or do it more gently and convince them that it's the right thing to do,'' he said. Chances are good that most government access suits will be won by the plaintiffs and attorney fees will be recovered, he said.
Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Cheryl Leidle agreed with many of the news media speakers. ''We're not doing our jobs very well if we're not releasing public information to the public,'' she said. Leidle said that in the wake of the FOI audit she's working with other government agencies in Helena to try to lower the charges for copies of initial offense reports.