In the Declaration of Rights of the Constitution of the State of Montana, it sets forth certain protections with respect to citizens and their local government. Citizens have the right to have reasonable opportunity to participate in their government prior to any final decisions being made. Citizens have the right to examine documents or observe the deliberations of their government unless it violates some individual right to privacy. The Helena City Charter empowers Helenans to participate fully in the process of governing themselves. On Monday evening, a majority of the Helena City Commission said, “Yeah, so what?”
Probably the most important decision that the Helena City Commission can make during the next year is the selection of a good city manager. The first step in that process begins with the selection of an interim city manager.
There is a great deal that I don't understand about how we arrived at the decision that was made on Monday night to offer a contract to Melinda Reed. Commissioner Dean and I were not a part of many decisions that were made about the selection of an interim city manager -- going back to the contract offer to Ed Meece, to the cancelling of the public discussion about whether or not to accept that contract. After that, a decision was made (by whom I don't know) to accept material from interested individuals through our Human Resources Department. At last Wednesday’s administrative meeting of the commission, there was an expectation on the part of staff and at least two commissioners, that we would be publicly discussing the merits of those individuals who had expressed interest through that part of the process. At that meeting, when the agenda item “Interim City Manager Status Discussion” was considered, we were told that the public discussion would occur at the regular meeting (again who made that decision, I don't know). The next day, we found out the agenda item for discussion at Monday’s meeting was whether or not to approve a contract offer to Melinda Reed, not a discussion of the entire commission about the individuals who might be considered for interim city manager in moving forward. There were at least two commissioners who were left out of that decision as well. This is not transparent governance.
So, I guess for me, the bigger question that evening was, and still is, “Is this how the Helena City Commission is going to do business, where some members of the commission are privy to decisions and others not?” The answer to that, of course, is “NO.”
Commissioner Dean and I could be incensed about having been left out of much of this, and rightly so. We are duly elected representatives of the citizens of Helena. But, really the larger issue here is that the public has been deprived of its constitutional right to participate in their government and the public has been deprived of their right to know of the deliberations of their government. The public and the press have a lot of questions and they are demanding a transparency that we can’t seem to deliver.
In 1984, Walter Cronkite told us, “A democracy ceases to be a democracy if its citizens do not participate in its governance. To participate intelligently, they must know what their government has done, is doing and plans to do in their name. Whenever any hindrance, no matter what its name, is placed in the way of this information, a democracy is weakened, and its future endangered. This is the meaning of freedom of press. It is not just important to democracy, it is democracy.”
On Jan. 2 of this year, Judge Menahan administered an oath to us newly elected municipal officials. In that oath, we solemnly swore to support, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, the Constitution of the State of Montana and the Charter and ordinances of the City of Helena. We further vowed to discharge the duties of this office with fidelity. That oath means a great deal to me. I intend, to the best of my ability, to honor that oath.
So the Helena City Commission in a 3-2 vote, approved a contract with Melinda Reed. Both Commissioner Dean and myself expressed our strong concerns with the process and the concern that this will be the way your Helena City Commission represents its constituents in the future. “Yeah, so what?” We can and must do better for the citizens of Helena in the future.
Sean Logan is a member of the Helena City Commission.
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