Lead Lawmakers Say They Would Oppose Plans to Close Caucuses

By Beacon Staff

HELENA (AP) – Legislative leaders said Tuesday that they would oppose any plans to close caucuses to the public or limit access reporters have to the floor sessions.

The issue came up at a legislative hearing dealing with the decade-old media lawsuit that forced lawmakers to open caucuses, along with other issues surrounding reporters covering the Legislature.

Both House Speaker Scott Sales, R-Bozeman, and Senate President Mike Cooney, D-Helena, said there are no plans to close caucuses or prevent journalists from reporting from the floor of the chambers. The chairman of the Legislative Council, Democrat Bob Bergren of Havre, also rebuffed any notion of restricting access.

Bergren characterized the discussion as information gathering by lawmakers who were not around during the court battle of the 1990s that pitted the Legislature against a large group of news organizations.

“I’m not advocating any change at this point,” Sales said.

Sen. Greg Barkus, R-Kalispell, said he believes the conversation is a result of former House Majority Leader Michael Lange’s profanity-laced attack on Gov. Brian Schweitzer that was caught by reporters at a Republican caucus.

He said lawmakers were generally concerned about decorum “when the former majority leader of the House breaks down and it ends up on YouTube,” Barkus said.

Sales said he does not think Lange’s public attack had anything to do with the conversation. He said Lange knew that a television camera was in the room.

“That was just unfortunate on his part, but that did not weigh in on my curiosity in the subject,” Sales said.

The videotaped tirade became an example often cited of the acrimonious and partisan tone to the 2007 Legislature. Republicans replaced Lange shortly after the attack, which came near the end of last year’s session.

Sales said he does not agree with the decision courts made in the 1990s that led to open caucuses, because he believes it is another case of the judicial system telling the Legislature what it must do. But he said it is not realistic to try to change it.

A legislative lawyer told lawmakers that the Supreme Court never ruled on the full case. But he said the district court’s decision, along with subsequent state Supreme Court decisions on open meetings make it a tough legal case to reopen.

Greg Petesch said the Supreme Court in recent years has set an “expansive definition of what constitutes a public body.”

Bergren said that he believes open caucuses have forced some groups of lawmakers to take conversations “underground” out of the sight of reporters and the public. He noted the Republican House caucus only met a few times all last year.

Media representatives told the Legislative Council that the courts clearly ruled that partisan caucuses are considered public meetings and subject to open meeting laws.

John Barrows, with the Montana Newspaper Association, said open government builds more confidence in the system.

“The appearance of propriety is as important as propriety itself,” he said.

John Kuglin, retired bureau chief for The Associated Press in Montana, said lawmakers have come a long way since many decisions were made behind closed doors decades ago. He said the 1990s lawsuit came after reporters were repeatedly denied access to the partisan caucuses, and the issue took four years to settle.

“I hope we don’t have to go through this again,” he told the lawmakers.

Cooney said he wants to look at ways to improve access reporters have to the floor. He said the Senate press table gets very crowded, and senators in the same corner have said they can feel crowded.

Ian Marquand, a television reporter who represented the Montana Freedom of Information Hotline at Tuesday’s hearing, said reporters are open to changes that make them less conspicuous as long as they are not restricted.