Audit finds some Ravalli officials decline to release documents

By Jared Miller, Ravalli Republic

October 22, 2003.

HAMILTON – Public information, in Ravalli County at least, may not be all that public, a recent state-wide survey revealed.

An audit conducted by Montana news organizations this summer indicated reluctance by Ravalli County officials to release public documents. The Sheriff’s Office was particularly reticent, the survey revealed.

A detention officer declined to release an inmate roster, saying it contained all the information a person would need to help stage a jail break.

The Sheriff’s Office refused to hand over an incident report, which contains information about calls to the office and the officer who responded.

The Montana Constitution gives citizens the right to inspect and copy any “public writing” of the state, except as prohibited by statute. In addition, the Constitution says that public records should be available for inspection at all times during office hours.

Missoulian editor Mike McInally, one of several journalists who coordinated the audit, called the lack of willingness on the part of law enforcement to hand over public information a “disturbing trend.” It was common across the state, he said.

“Half of all sheriff’s offices declined to part with the incident reports, and a little fewer than half of all jails refused to release the records,” McInally said.

Associated Press political reporter Bob Anez said freedom of information surveys in Colorado and Nevada have documented a similar trend.

Sheriff Chris Hoffman could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

The Montana Department of Revenue office also declined to release a public document during the audit. A department official would not release the property tax records of the chairman of the board of Ravalli County Commission without the chairman’s name, which the surveyor apparently didn’t know. “I think here’s a case where to fulfill the spirit of the law, someone at the county courthouse could have said, ‘This is the name of the chairman of the commission,’” McInally said. “That was a case where someone at the county should have taken the extra step.”

Debbie Reesman, the Ravalli County manager for the Montana Department of Revenue, said her staff may have been confused by the query. Or they may have balked at the “unusual request.”

“If someone were to come to the window and ask for someone else’s property without a specific name, they may have been hesitant,” Reesman said. “Typically, if we can provide the information that is being requested, and it doesn’t take away from our day-to-day statutory deadlines, we’ll look it up.”

She added that two new employees started working in the summer and may not have understood the surveyor’s request.

Several other agencies were more forthcoming with the information. A clerk at the town of Stevensville, for example, handed over a copy of the minutes from a Town Council meeting at not cost to the surveyor. Likewise, the Hamilton School District provided information about the superintendent’s salary at no cost.

Ravalli County’s clerk of court provided copies of both criminal and civil court dockets, at a cost of $.50 per page. The Hamilton Clerk of Court handed over records from a lawsuit, at a cost of $.10 per page.

© 2003 Missoulian and Lee Enterprises.

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