HELENA – The Montana House gave initial approval Monday to a bill to clarify that county commissioners can travel together or attend the same event without violating the state’s open meeting laws, despite objections that the measure could lead to less public participation.
The bill by Republican state Sen. Pat Connell, of Hamilton, says that a gathering of a majority of county commissioners at an event or traveling in the same vehicle does not constitute a meeting unless official business is discussed. If they discuss business, the members must provide a report at their next public meeting about what happened.
All county commission meetings must be open to the public and notice must be given at least two days ahead of a meeting. County commissioners who gather anywhere without that public notice could be in violation of open meeting laws, under the current law.
Republican state Rep. Denley Loge, of St. Regis, who carried Connell’s bill in the House, said the clarification is needed in counties where small populations mean that a quorum of county commissioners can found at a basketball game or even a funeral.
“It’s trying to … let those public officials actually have a public life,” Loge said.
Opponents of the measure said the bill provides exemptions to public meetings that county commissioners could use as a loophole. Republican Rep. Forrest Mandeville, of Columbus, noted that the measure is being debated at the beginning of Sunshine Week, an annual celebration of access to public information.
“We should be strengthening public participation, not providing exemptions to that,” Mandeville said. “This is an easy no vote, especially during Sunshine Week.”
The House voted for the measure 67-33 on Monday. It must pass a final vote before it goes to Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.
The Senate approved the bill last month.
The House also endorsed other measures on Monday:
— Three bills recommended by the state Commission on Sentencing that aim to reduce jail populations and save money. One would set deadlines on pre-sentencing investigation reports so that criminals are sentenced more quickly and moved out of overpopulated county jails. Another would allow low-risk probationers to be discharged after being under supervision for nine months. The third would require counseling services that reduce the risk of future violent behavior from offenders.
— A bill that would clarify a state law that prohibits hunting from vehicles. The bill says a person is not in violation if his or her entire body is outside of the vehicle and both feet are on the ground.
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