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Lawsuit : Redistricting panel violated open meetings law

HELENA — Some central Montana residents argued in court Friday that that the state's legislative districting commission wrongly met in private earlier this year to assign senators.

State District Judge Mike Menahan listened to arguments in a case that deals with a last-minute decision to adjust the assignment of some sitting senators to new districts, based upon feedback from a bipartisan group of lawmakers. Menahan said he hopes to make a quick decision in a case that he expects the state Supreme Court will ultimately decide and could affect candidate filings early next year.

Residents in a district that covers Lewistown and other nearby towns are upset at the way the district assigned them a Democratic holdover senator from another area. They filed a lawsuit arguing the plan wasn't properly hashed out in a public meeting, and that it wasn't specifically noticed as a topic of the Districting and Apportionment Commission's final meeting.

The commission meets every 10 years to draw new districts of roughly equal population based on updated census information. The panel was split between two Republicans and two Democrats who sparred for the tie-breaking vote of a former Montana Supreme Court justice.

The final assignment of senators to the new districts in February ensured a Republican senator — known for bipartisanship — will be able to run in 2014 in a new district where he lives. The original assignment of holdovers left Sen. Llew Jones, of Conrad, without a district.

But the move also shifted some term-limited senators, who will not be running again, into new seats that will have less familiar territory, including the district around Lewistown.

The lawsuit argues that Jones was assigned to a district for political advantage. And it says commissioners made the decision by huddling in a series of small, one-on-one private meetings that led to the ultimate decision and should have been made public.

The state told Menahan that no quorum of the commission ever met privately as alleged, and that the assignment of new districts was made at a public meeting.


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