By Michael Howell
The County Commissioners rescinded the county’s Public Participation Resolution and adopted a new one last week. The previous resolution was adopted in January 2004. A meeting was held in October and two in November at which the Commissioners discussed potential changes. The new Resolution Providing for Public Participation, Meeting and Open Government was adopted at the November 27 meeting.
The Commissioners were ordered by District Judge Jeffrey Langton to “create, adopt and publish guidelines for determining whether an issue is ‘of significant interest to the public,’ and for how it will notify the public of issues of significant interest” as a result of a lawsuit filed over the Upper Woodchuck Road decision in which the item was not placed on the county’s agenda until two hours before the meeting.
In response, Deputy County Attorney Howard Recht recommended that the commissioners add a definition of the term “Ministerial Act” to the Resolution. It means “an act performed pursuant to legal authority and requiring no exercise of judgment.” The Resolution defines “matters of significant interest to the public” as “all matters except those involving a mere ministerial act.” It states that “notice shall be provided of any non-ministerial decision or action of the Board of County Commissioners that has meaning to or affects a portion of the community unless an exception applies.” It requires that notice be provided a minimum of 48 hours prior to the time scheduled.
The Resolution requires that the notice be “posted on the bulletin board on the third floor of the Ravalli County Administrative Center.” It states that “supplemental notice may be posted at additional public places, electronically mailed or otherwise provided to local media, and published on the county’s website.”
The Resolution states that no notice will be required for purely ministerial acts and in case of emergencies that impact public health, welfare or safety, but “such actions made without notice shall be the minimum required to address the emergency.”
The Resolution states that one or more commissioners may place an item on the agenda. The public may request issues be added to the agenda either during a regular meeting or by making oral or written request directly to one of the commissioners. It states that all meetings are open to the public “unless closed as allowed or required by statute.”
The Resolution provides an opportunity for public comment both prior to and during meetings before any action is taken by the Board. It also requires the commissioners to consider relevant data or comments before taking any action. At public hearings, the appropriate time for submission of public data, either oral or written, is prior to the closure of the public hearing. The public is also allowed to make comment on any item not on the agenda but under the county’s jurisdiction.
During public discussion of the proposed Resolution, Michael Howell, Publisher of the Bitterroot Star, raised the question of whether the public notice posting requirements were sufficient. He said that by only requiring the posting of the agenda on the bulletin board on the third floor of the Administrative Center, the possibility was left open of posting the agenda on Friday at 4:55 p.m. for a Monday morning meeting. He said that on the surface it appeared to meet the rule requiring notice be posted 48 hours prior to the scheduled meeting, but in fact it was insufficient, since the doors to the building are locked at 5 p.m. and remain locked over the weekend. He said that practically it did not meet the intent of the law, which is to provide adequate notice so the public could attend. He suggested that the commissioners consider requiring notification of the news media and posting on the county’s website as well.
County Commissioner Jeff Burrows said that he believed since the building was routinely locked at 5 p.m. and left locked over the weekend that the requirement of posting on the bulletin board on the third floor of the building was flawed. He suggested that the issue could be addressed by placing the agenda in an outdoor display case so people could see it after hours and on weekends and holidays. The Commissioners’ Administrative Assistant Glenda Wiles said that if the cost of a display case was of concern that she could post the agenda in a waterproof plastic covering on the front door of the building without much cost and was willing to do it.
The Board of Commissioners did not adopt either of these suggestions and the Resolution only requires that it be posted on the third floor bulletin board 48 hours prior to the scheduled meeting.
Howell also asked the Commissioners to consider adding a policy on how meetings would be closed to the public. He submitted a “check list” of questions plucked from a recent Summary Judgment issued by Judge James Haynes concerning a closed door session. He suggested that these questions could be asked and answered to help determine if a meeting met the statutory requirements for a closed door session which requires the weighing of any privacy claims against the public’s right to know.
Deputy County Attorney Howard Recht advised against adopting any “check list” because the questions would be different each time depending upon the circumstances and should be approached on a case-by-case basis.
The Board of Commissioners decided that no explicit policy was needed in this regard and the Resolution was adopted unanimously.