Online Group Raises Transparency Questions

By Beacon Staff

A handful of citizens have raised questions over a private online forum used by the committee rewriting the Lakeside neighborhood plan, calling it secretive and illegal. Flathead County officials, however, say the forum was simply meant to share drafts of the plan among committee members, and defended the committee’s work as transparent and fair.

Since its inception in November 2007, the Lakeside Neighborhood Plan Committee has kept an online Yahoo! group. The 11-person committee is tasked with rewriting Lakeside’s neighborhood plan, which was last updated in 1995. Neighborhood plans offer land-use recommendations for unincorporated communities.

The Lakeside committee’s members include volunteers from the community as well as Andrew Hagemeier, the county planner assigned to the project.

Yahoo! Groups operate as both electronic mailing lists and Internet forums. Group messages can be posted and read by e-mail or on the Group homepage, like a Web forum. Other additional functions on the Web site include calendar systems and file uploading.

Until recently, the neighborhood planning committee’s forum – like many others on the site – has not been accessible to the public; a password was required to access it.

More than 500 messages were sent among group members during the 19 months the site was used. Several documents were also uploaded and shared among members, including agendas, minutes and draft copies of the plan.

The Yahoo! Group came into question earlier this month. On May 12, Flathead County Deputy Attorney Jonathan Smith sent a letter to Jeff Harris, director of the county’s planning and zoning office, saying the county had “received complaints recently concerning a ‘secret’ Web site.”

Since state statutes haven’t kept up with technology, Smith said the committee’s use of the Web site wasn’t specifically prohibited.

“However, when a committee subject to the open meeting and public document acts maintains a Web site that is not accessible by the public, it may well create a perception that the public’s business is not being carried out in the sight of the public,” he wrote.

Smith recommended the committee close down the site after creating a paper file of the documents and conversations held there. That paper file should then be made available to the public, he said. In the future, Smith recommended the committee should distribute drafts at meetings or by mail.

“We understand that recent technological advances can allow for more efficient communication and distribution of documents, but it also may interfere with the public’s interest in monitoring the conduct of public business by public bodies,” Smith wrote.

“We believe that the public’s right to watch government action should prevail even when efficiency suffers,” he added.

The county followed Smith’s recommendation late last week, opening the Yahoo! account to the public and creating a paper file at the planning office.

At a commissioner meeting last week, Lakeside-area landowners Donna Thornton and Jim and Beverley Etzler, as well as Russ Crowder, president of pro-property rights group American Dream Montana, objected to the online forum.

Thornton said the Yahoo! group diminishes the public’s right to transparency, and brings into question the validity of the committee’s work so far.

“My concern is that it’s a deliberate attempt to keep the public from knowing what they’re doing,” she said, “and that the planning office – county employees – were involved in it.”

In an e-mail to the planning office sent in early May, county planning board member George Culpepper also questioned the site after members of the public had expressed their concerns to him.

“Having a ‘secret’ yahoo group of those who drafted the plan flies in the face of government transparency and public participation,” Culpepper wrote, also questioning how the committee could “submit a document that seems to be done under the cloak of privacy.”

County Planning Director Jeff Harris, however, says that the online forum was intended as a means of easily disseminating drafts of the plan.

After gathering public input through a survey and meetings, Harris said the committee’s members were assigned to work on certain sections of the plan. The Yahoo! group was needed to share those drafts with the rest of the committee in preparation for meetings, he added, where they were shared with the public.

“They’ve made all of their decisions at public meetings, reviewing sections practically line by line,” Harris said. “The Yahoo! account was just to facilitate communication between these community members.”

In addition to the meetings, Harris points out that the committee has also kept an extensive Web site informing the public about the plan.

“The public has had opportunity to comment on the committee’s work so far, and will have plenty of chances to comment on the plan as the process continues,” Harris said.

The Lakeside Neighborhood Plan Committee presented a draft of the plan to the town’s community council the last week of April, giving the public until June 19 to comment on the draft.

The committee will then revise the draft based on public comment and send it back to the community council on June 30. Next, the plan would still have to go through public reviews with the planning board and commission before becoming part of the county’s growth policy.

Copies of the draft can be downloaded or read online at the committee’s Web site, www.lakesideplan2008.com or the planning office’s Web site at flathead.mt.gov/planning_zoning. There are also copies available at the West Shore Library in Lakeside or the Flathead County Planning Office in Kalispell,

Written comments can be e-mailed to [email protected]; mailed to P.O. Box 157, Lakeside, 59922; or placed in collection boxes at Flathead Bank, Glacier Bank, Blacktail Grocery and the West Shore Community Library.