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Montana legislature overrides public records veto

Updated: Jul 21, 2023

Public records

One of the most important tools that citizens have to maintain control over the government they have created is with strong open government laws. Montana takes the people’s right to know so seriously that it is enshrined in the state constitution under Article 2, Part 2:

Section 8. Right of participation. The public has the right to expect governmental agencies to afford such reasonable opportunity for citizen participation in the operation of the agencies prior to the final decision as may be provided by law.

Section 9. Right to know. No person shall be deprived of the right to examine documents or to observe the deliberations of all public bodies or agencies of state government and its subdivisions, except in cases in which the demand of individual privacy clearly exceeds the merits of public disclosure.”

This year the Montana legislature passed a couple of bills to update the state’s public records law.

Senate Bill 232 put into law the requirement for state agencies to acknowledge a public records request within five days and for executive branch agencies to provide the information 20 days after the acknowledgment (with exceptions). That bill was signed into law in May.

House Bill 693, however, was recently vetoed by Governor Gianforte but the legislature just acted to override the veto. As reported by the Daily Montanan:

“House Bill 693, which surrounds agency compliance with public information disclosures, passed a veto override on Friday with 105 votes from both chambers . . . The bill, sponsored by Rep. Bill Mercer, a Billings Republican and former U.S. Attorney for the District of Montana, soared through the legislature, receiving 94 votes in the House and 48 votes in the Senate on third reading.

Mercer said there were circumstances where agencies said they may be on the verge of litigation or the middle of litigation and therefore they will not comply with a right-to-know request.

‘I think it’s important that we codify that the right to know is a constitutional right that every member of the public has and that there should not be an agency attempt to fail to comply because they believe there’s going to be litigation,’ Mercer said.”

Enhancing and complying with open government laws may not always be easy for public officials, but it is important for a well-functioning and accountable government. More importantly, it is what we expect and deserve from those entrusted with providing taxpayer-funded services.

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