Media groups file motion over GOP caucus meeting
Last updated 11/22/2014 at 11:35am
HELENA — More than 20 media groups, including The Associated Press, have asked a Montana court to hold the state House Republican Caucus in contempt for holding an unpublicized meeting in apparent violation of state open-meetings law.
The Great Falls Tribune discovered the Nov. 13 Republican caucus meeting being held in the basement of a Helena hotel. The Tribune reported that about 50 lawmakers were discussing the 2015 legislative session.
Montana party caucus meetings must be open to the public after courts ruled in 1998 that caucuses were public bodies and must comply with the public's constitutional right to know what government is doing. That decision came after news organizations, including the AP, sued over the matter in 1995.
A caucus is a meeting of a legislative chamber's party members. Generally, caucus meetings are announced publicly and held in public meeting rooms.
Republican Sen. Jeff Essmann, who was elected to the House on Nov. 4, has said the Nov. 13 gathering was not subject to the meetings law because lawmakers weren't making legislative decisions.
Mike Meloy, attorney for the media groups, filed the motion Thursday with the 1st Judicial District Court in Helena. The motion argues that secret meetings appear "to be an ongoing effort to avoid the requirements of this court's 1998 judgment and will be repeated during the upcoming session unless the court takes some action to assure compliance with the law."
The groups are seeking a contempt finding and an order to give public notice of future caucus meetings. District Judge Kathy Seeley of Helena has set a hearing for Dec. 9 in the matter.
Some legislators over the years have made moves to meet with members outside the public eye. A Tribune reporter witnessed another closed-door House Republican caucus meeting in the basement of the Capitol in April 2013.
In 2011, Senate Democrats complained that Senate Republicans were moving their caucus meetings to private buildings to avoid public scrutiny.
Joining the motion were the Bigfork Eagle, The Billings Gazette, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, The Montana Standard, Great Falls Tribune, Havre Daily News, Helena Independent Record, The Daily Interlake, Livingston Enterprise, Miles City Star, The Missoulian, News Montana, Inc., Ravalli Republic, KECI-TV, KFBB-TV, KXLF-TV, KTVQ-TV and KULR-TV.
Also joining were the Montana Newspaper Association and the Society of Professional Journalists' Montana chapter.