The plaintiffs in the 1995 lawsuit that determined Montana legislative caucuses are subject to the state’s open meeting laws returned to court on Thursday.
The Associated Press and 21 other news organizations, including the Great Falls Tribune, asked Helena District Judge Kathy Seeley to find the House Republican Caucus in contempt of former District Judge Thomas Honzel’s 1998 ruling for a meeting held late in the day Nov. 13, in the basement of a Helena restaurant, without giving the public or the press notice of the meeting.
“Clearly, legislators gather at caucuses to discuss the public’s business,” Honzel wrote in his 1998 decision. “When they do so, the public has a right to observe their discussions and to be informed about what happens at those meetings.”
Newly elected and hold-over lawmakers gathered in Helena for three days last week to elect their party leadership and take part in orientation prior to the start of the 2015 legislative session. On Nov. 13 House Republican whips handed out slips to paper to members of the House GOP caucus informing them there was a caucus meeting at 8 p.m. in the downstairs banquet room at Jorgenson’s Inn & Suites, a local hotel and restaurant frequented by lawmakers during the biennial legislative sessions.
The meeting was not publicly announced and the news media was unaware that it had been scheduled until receiving a tip shortly before the meeting started.
This reporter and Shane Castle, editor and publisher of the independent newspaper the Helena Vigilante, arrived shortly after the meeting started.
At the meeting, newly elected House Majority Leader Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, handed out a one-page, two-sided questionnaire to lawmakers seeking their opinions on various issues that could come before the Legislature.
The document was labeled “11-13-14 Republican House Caucus.”
Regier said in an interview Friday morning he had not seen the court filing but added that the caucus did not intend to violate open-meeting laws.
“The meeting wasn’t done in the spirit of contempt,” Regier said. “As far as notifying the press, that was neglect on my part. If we wanted a covert meeting we probably wouldn’t have held it in the banquet room of a motel where lots of legislators spend time with the doors open.”
During the 2013 session the Tribune reported on a similar incident after this reporter discovered an unnoticed, closed-door House GOP caucus meeting taking place in the basement of the state Capitol in apparent violation of of Honzel’s 1998 ruling.
Helena attorney Mike Meloy, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs in this latest action, said the state’s open meeting laws are clear on this issue and legislative caucuses are subject to Montana open meeting laws.
“The unannounced meeting held by the House Republican caucus last week in the basement of Jorgenson’s was clearly illegal and is a continuation of a pattern of indifference to the law,” Meloy said. “Caucuses meet to discuss various strategies the political parties will take on bills. The caucus is the boiler room for public policy in Montana. When the majority party caucuses to discuss bills, the discussion is at least as important as floor debate. When it occurs in secret, the public is deprived of the right to know what and why the legislature does what it does.”
Regier said the law is not clear as to what constitutes a caucus and it doesn’t give clear guidance on what constitutes adequate public notice.
“Caucus can be a noun or a verb, and maybe that’s where I had confusion last week,” Regier said. “I feel we were meeting as a group, the caucus, the noun. Because we were meeting as a group the public could be there. I guess it was neglect on my part not notifying the press. Therein lies the problem.”
Regier maintained that no decisions were made and that the purpose of the meeting was not to discuss public policy.
“As far as the spirit of law, it needs to be recognized. But it gets back to no policy was discussed and no decisions were made. As far as caucusing as a verb, that did not go on,” Regier said.
Meloy said it doesn’t matter what the content of the meeting was, the caucuses have a legal obligation to follow open meeting laws and give the public adequate opportunity to observe those discussions.
“Although the law is clear, the House Republicans are ignoring their public duty to work in the open,” Meloy said. “The media plaintiffs can no longer tolerate this behavior and are asking the court to do everything within its judicial power to assure the constitutional mandate of the public’s right to know is enforced. Without some enforcement action, the court’s determination is meaningless.”