HELENA — Republican members of the Montana House held a caucus meeting after-hours and away from the Capitol, raising questions about whether they violated the state’s open meeting laws.
About 50 Republican lawmakers met Thursday night in the basement of a Helena hotel to talk about the 2015 legislative session, the Great Falls Tribune reported.
Party caucus meetings must be open to the public after the courts found in the 1990s that party caucuses were public bodies and subject to Montana’s right-to-know laws.
Newly elected Republican House Majority Leader Keith Regier of Kalispell handed out questionnaires at the meeting and asked lawmakers to give opinions on issues such as the transfer of public lands. The questionnaire also asked for opinions on Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s priorities including Medicaid expansion, preschool and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes water-rights compact.
Regier said the sole purpose of the meeting was to give out the questionnaires.
Republican Sen. Jeff Essmann, a Billings attorney, told the Tribune that the meeting did not fall under the state’s open meetings law because lawmakers weren’t on public property, the doors weren’t closed, and the caucus wasn’t making legislative decisions.
But Mike Meloy, a Helena attorney who specializes in freedom-of-information cases, said there’s no question the caucus violated Montana’s open meeting laws.
“It doesn’t make any difference where a public entity holds a meeting,” Meloy told The Associated Press. “The problem of this meeting is they didn’t notify anyone, so without that it’s just as effectively closed as if the doors were locked.”
Meloy also said if any business is discussed at a meeting of elected officials in Montana, it’s covered by open meeting law.
Essmann questioned whether democracy is improved or hindered if people can’t have frank discussions.
Meloy said speaking frankly is not an exception to an open meeting law.
“In Montana the rule is you have to speak frankly in front of the public, and if you want to be a public official in Montana, you just have to accept that legal proposition,” Meloy said.
Montana Democratic Party spokesman Bryan Watt blasted the move by Republicans.
“It’s no surprise Republican leaders are hiding in smoke-filled back rooms to keep their out-of-touch, reckless agenda from the people of Montana,” he said.
Lawmakers were in Helena this week to choose party leadership and attend orientation before the session starts Jan.5. Republicans hold a strong majority in both the House and Senate.