Despite what some public servants seem to think, the government works for the people -- not the other way around.
That means when appointed or elected government officials gather to discuss public matters, the public has a right to be there. When they communicate about public business in writing -- whether that’s on paper, in an email or in any other form -- the public has a right to see it.
Though there are some exceptions to these rules, which are grounded in state and federal law, our representative democracy would not work without them. That’s why we hope people will not stand idly by when public officials impede or outright block their legal right to know.
As we’ve reported many times, Montana’s closed-government problem has been reaffirmed time after time the last decade or so through studies conducted by a variety of organizations. One of the latest reports came from the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan nonprofit that gave Montana a D grade in 2015 for government accountability and transparency.
Among the issues identified in the report is a costly public records system that requires citizens to sue the government to obtain public records withheld by public employees. We can attest that filing a costly lawsuit is sometimes the only way to get these documents, as we’ve had to do it before.
The report also noted that while Montana laws promise accountability on paper, they lack bite in practice. Montana officials love to tout the state’s constitutional provision that gives citizens the right to inspect public records and attend meetings of public agencies, but that is all meaningless without a system in place to enforce it.
We don’t want to give the impression that all local and state officials in Montana are trying to conceal public information.
Many of the public servants we work with every day have demonstrated a high level of commitment to government transparency, at least when working with the press, and a lot of public records are easily available online. Look for the "Sunshine Week" logo in our coverage this week for examples of stories made possible by public records that have been made accessible.
But we’ve also dealt with those who like to exploit the state’s weak transparency laws to withhold public information. And that will probably continue to happen until the people of Montana make it a priority to fix this systemic problem.
In honor of Sunshine Week, a national initiative that runs from today through Saturday promoting open government and freedom of information, we encourage Montanans to push for more transparency and accountability within our government.
We want to see laws prohibiting government officials from discussing the public’s business in private emails, and we want public officials to be required to respond to records requests within a reasonable amount of time. We also want the state to implement a formal process that compels officials to provide public information without involving the courts, and we want to see criminal penalties implemented for those who still fail to do so.
Above all, we want all government officials in Montana to fulfill their constitutional obligation to operate openly and transparently. Because a watched government is an accountable government, and the taxpayers deserve to know what they’re paying for.