Members of Helena’s City Commission have made some pretty weighty decisions in the last couple of weeks, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at their official meeting agendas.
After a lengthy discussion at an Aug. 16 administrative meeting, the mayor and commission directed city staff to remove a monument to Confederate soldiers that has stood in a city park since 1916. On Monday, the commission approved an ordinance exempting the granite fountain from a city code requiring a special review process for demolition of structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Both of these decisions were deeply personal to many in our community, with some saying the fountain is a symbol of hate that has no place in Helena and others arguing it is a historic landmark that should be explained instead of removed. And those on all sides of the issue have a legal right to participate in any city commission discussions about this issue and any other city business, with limited exceptions.
Yet the city made no mention of the Confederate fountain in the official agenda for either meeting, even though city officials knew it was going to come up. And this omission would have effectively denied people the right to participate in the conversation if we and other media outlets hadn’t reported on what the commission was actually planning to do.
While an attorney who specializes in open government issues says the city may have “technically” violated open meetings law by failing to properly notice these decisions, city officials maintain that no public notice was legally required because they considered this to be an emergency.
But this isn’t about what’s legal. It’s about what’s right. And ensuring the people of Helena have the opportunity to participate in government deliberations on important issues is the right thing for our elected leaders to do.
We understand why the mayor and commission wanted to act quickly on this, but their haste was extreme and unwarranted. We also know they had time to post an emergency meeting notice, even if only a day or two in advance.
While not everyone checks the official agendas, we keep a close eye on them on the public's behalf. And the commission should do everything in its power to encourage public participation even when the discussions get uncomfortable.
Next time the mayor and commission plan to make a controversial or important decision, the least they can do is put it on the agenda.