The Problem With Access To Information In Montana Is NOT Helped By Partisan Outrage/Litigation

by Travis Mateer

Before I get to the lawsuit being filed against Governor Gianforte’s administration, I want you to imagine a scenario.

Imagine you have a family member who has been missing for seven months and as each excruciating day/week/month goes by, you wonder why you haven’t been allowed to even LISTEN to the 911 call that alerted first responders to your family members’ personal belongings.

Well, that is the actual situation Rebekah Barsotti’s family is dealing with as MORE questions continue emerge.

Now, with that scenario in mind, here are the groups suing the Governor’s office over the VERY REAL problem of delaying access to public records request.

On Tuesday, in Lewis and Clark County District Court, the Montana Environmental Information Center and Earthworks filed a complaint saying the Governor’s Office and the Department of Administration have taken too long to respond to a Nov. 29 request for public records.

Montana’s public records laws give citizens access to all state documents and communications involving public agencies, except sections that contain information related to citizens’ personal privacy. This helps people keep a closer watch on agency actions.

Now, regarding that 911 call, there is a question about the caller’s privacy, but if it’s just a “missing persons” case, and not an active criminal investigation, is there a strong argument for NOT ALLOWING the family ANY access to the phone call?

If only this family had the money and political backers that these environmental groups have to litigate for access. But they don’t, so they can’t get politically righteous like this:

“We have a fundamental, constitutional right to examine the records of state government in Montana, including any communications that the Governor’s office may have had with Hecla Mining,” said Anne Hedges, MEIC director of Policy and Legislative Affairs, in a release. “As the old saying goes, sunlight is the best disinfectant for mold in government. The public should know whether the governor dropped the Bad Actor matter at the request of an Idaho-based mining company and left Montana taxpayers and sovereign tribes holding the bag.” 

The two organizations requested a number of documents and communications between Gov. Greg Gianforte, Hecla Mining Corporation and its CEO, Phillips S. Baker Jr. They also requested documents related to any influence the Governor’s Office might have had over the Department of Environmental Quality’s enforcement of Montana’s “Bad Actor” law in a case filed against Hecla and Baker in 2018.

It’s nice these groups can afford to sue for access. One of the results, though, will be an already paranoid Gianforte administration getting even MORE tight-lipped about allowing the public the access we have the right to exercise.

Thanks for reading.

About Travis Mateer

I'm an artist and citizen journalist living and writing in Montana. You can contact me here: willskink at yahoo dot com
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