Big Sky Connection

Eric Tegethoff

March 12, 2018

HELENA, Mont. - It's Sunshine Week, a week that puts a spotlight on transparency and openness in government. 

Mike Meloy is an attorney who operates the Montana Freedom of Information Hotline. The hotline offers free legal advice to journalists and the public seeking to confront the government on closed documents or meetings. 

Meloy says the idea of "sunshine" in Sunshine Week is to improve the relationship between people and their government by making the government work in plain sight. He says this is essential to democracy.

"Whenever government tries to operate in private or in secret and away from the public view, the level of trust in their decisions goes down," he stresses.

Meloy says Montana is one of only a few states that has a right-of-access law written into its Constitution, giving Montanans a constitutional right to look at government documents and attend meetings. 

However, he says enforcing this law can be problematic because it often requires going to court, which is often a costly venture.

Meloy says cost has become an even greater barrier to transparency in another way. 

Because of a new statute that amends the state's open records law, governments can charge for the cost of producing their documents. That includes not just the cost of copies, but also the legal review to determine if the documents are open records. 

Meloy says it's discouraging openness in government.

"It has caused people not to ask for records because they're too expensive or they go back and forth with the custodian of the records trying to argue that these records are open," he points out.

Meloy says the instinct of governmental bodies is to operate in private, but that once people understand what the government's obligation is under the law, it responds favorably and complies.