October 22, 2003.
BILLINGS – How public are Montana’s public records? Are state laws and the state constitution, which guarantee access to public information, being followed?
The results are mixed, according to an audit conducted this summer in all 56 counties by the state’s news organizations.
Volunteer auditors – mostly staff members of newspapers and radio and television stations – fanned out across the state and requested six public records in each county – sheriff’s department incident reports, jail rosters, superintendent pay, District Court files, property tax information and minutes of city government meetings.
The surveyors found that officials met requests for specific public documents 81 percent of the time. Only 19 of 56 counties supplied all of the public information requested. Only three counties – Gallatin, Lincoln and Teton – met the first request for information. Fergus, Glacier, Judith Basin, Ravalli, Stillwater and Wibaux counties met requests half of the time or less.
Sheriff’s department officials refused to provide public information more than 40 percent of the time.
In Yellowstone County, results of the June 5 audit mirrored the statewide trend.
The Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office refused a citizen’s request for latest incident reports but did provide the jail roster. In both cases, officials asked for the volunteer’s name, which the law does not require.
Officials at School District 2 initially refused to provide public information on the superintendent’s salary. After repeated requests, one employee provided a salary figure, but refused to provide any document that listed the salary. They suggested the auditor go the superintendent’s office for further information. After waiting for help in the superintendent’s office for 20 minutes, the auditor left with only the anecdotal report of the salary.
Billings City Council minutes, Yellowstone County property tax information and District Court records were all provided to the auditor in less than 10 minutes. The auditor commented that officials in those offices were extremely polite and helpful.
© 2003 Missoulian and Lee Enterprises.