The Billings Outpost

Good ruling, bad result

OPINION

By JIM ELLIOTT

A couple of weeks ago the Republican House Caucus, which is made up of all the  Republican members of the Montana House of Representatives, held a secret meeting to discuss the coming legislative session.

It is against the law for an elected body to hold meetings that do not give the public notice of the event and agenda, and which the public is not allowed to attend. Two reporters were told about it, and when they showed up at the meeting, it was disbanded.

Montana news organizations then filed a motion in District Court, asking that the court find the House Republicans in contempt of the 1998 court decision that forbids the legislative caucuses from holding secret meetings. The Republican House caucus is, of course, contesting that they did nothing wrong, and all that will play out in court.

Before the 1998 decision, party caucuses held closed meetings where they could freely discuss internal issues, make decisions and sometimes discipline members in private. The Montana media, who were not allowed to attend the meetings, felt that they should have access, and that indeed these meetings should be open to the public in accord with Montana’s constitutional guarantee that the public has a right to know, and the Montana open meetings law. They went to court, were successful, and meetings, except when “secret,” have been open to the public since that date.

Under the law, that decision was correct, but it has made a significant, if obscure, difference in the way Legislative decisions are made. It is not a good difference.

While many say they would like elected officials of our political parties to just get together and work out their differences, the fact is that political parties are adversaries, and always have been. They are not about to let the opposition in on what they are doing. Businesses in competition with each other don’t either.

If you were to attend one of the open caucus meetings, you would find that it is rare that anything of importance is brought up, and it is just as rare that members of the press would be there. For that matter, about the only public that does attend are designated staff of the other party. They are there on the off-chance that someone will forget that what they say is public information, and spill the proverbial beans.

Suffice it to say, decisions about policy and strategy are no longer discussed at these meetings. But they are discussed elsewhere, and the power that used to belong to each individual caucus member is now concentrated in a much smaller group of party leaders.

Prior to the decision, in the closed caucus, legislators discussed issues and concerns openly, and made their decisions with each member having a say and a vote on the action. Decisions were reached democratically, and once in a while someone would raise a point no one had thought of that changed the course of the meeting.

Especially important was the ability of legislators to all get the information at the same time so it could be discussed. The caucuses also served as a place where legislators formed bonds with leadership and other members. They informed legislators and fostered cohesiveness. They also, quite frankly, were sometimes used to keep people in line.

Since the lawsuit, the party caucuses have done their best to achieve the results that the closed caucuses produced without breaking the law, or at least not get caught doing it. That means that you cannot have a quorum at those meetings, so it takes three meetings to accomplish the task. The only people at all the meetings are the leadership who run every meeting. The net result is a less cohesive, less informed caucus, stripped of its decision making power, which is now concentrated in the hands of the leadership.

In short, decisions are still made in private, but by fewer people - those in charge.

Well, you can’t roll back the clock, and it is highly unlikely that any challenge to the law would be successful, so we have what we have, but it’s not for the better.

Jim Elliott is a former state senator who represented Mineral and Sanders counties and parts of Lincoln and Missoula Counties. He lives in Trout Creek.

Last Updated on Thursday, 25 December 2014 12:34

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