School boards illegally blocking public input

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Maybe school boards in Montana should replace their public comment period with a moment of silence, since that is what they seem to prefer to hear from the public.

For some time now, the Montana School Boards Association has been advising its members that the public’s right to participate in public meetings does not include the right to talk about people — “unless that person is present and the board chair gives permission.”

The Fair-Mont-Egan School Board took this position to restrict speech at a recent meeting when the public wanted to comment on the board’s decision not to renew the contract of Principal David Allen.

But according to Montana Code, Section 2-3-103, public comment should be allowed on any public matter “that is within the jurisdiction of the agency conducting the meeting.” The only exception granted is regarding “contested case and other adjudicative proceedings.” Therefore, a comment by the public regarding the job performance of school staff members should be allowed, whether positive or negative, unless they are party to a lawsuit or other grievance proceeding.

The taxpayers are the real employers, after all, and they should have a right to opine on how well things are going in THEIR school district.

We hope that the school boards, as well as all public agencies in Montana, will heed the advice of Helena attorney Mike Meloy, who works on behalf of the Montana Freedom of Information Hotline.

“Since information from the public cannot, as a matter of law, be ‘private,’ there is no basis for closing the meeting or otherwise interfering with the public’s right to comment on school matters, including the performance of employees,” Meloy told the Inter Lake.

Unfortunately, despite Montana’s Constitution and statutes both supporting the people’s rights to know and to participate in public business, it is too easy for boards, councils and agencies to hide behind legal jargon to avoid transparency. They know, after all, that the only way for citizens to force them to follow the rules is for someone to spend thousands of dollars on legal proceedings.

But there is another, better way to make sure that school boards follow the rules. That’s because Section 2-3-103 of the Montana Code Annotated actually spells out that it is up to the governor “to ensure guidelines [are] adopted” that “facilitate public participation.”

We therefore call upon Gov. Steve Bullock to inform school boards across the state, and other agencies as needed, that it is inappropriate and illegal to restrict public comment except in the rare instance of contested cases and other matters being adjudicated.

The public’s right to participate is a crucial pillar of Montana government, and must be reinforced against any efforts to weaken it.

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