City Commission erred in closing budget meeting

The Livingston City Commission made a disappointing and unusual decision Tuesday when it shut the public out of discussions about next year’s budget.

Those in attendance at the meeting, including a reporter from The Livingston Enterprise, were asked to leave the meeting, and the commission went into a closed executive session to discuss the possibility of eliminating one or more positions within the local government.

Government entities — at the local, state and federal level — often discuss the possibility of losing positions when there’s red ink on the upcoming budget.

Normally, the public has an opportunity to weigh in on these matters and voice their support or opposition.

After all, these are public agencies staffed by public employees in offices operating with public money.

Yet the Livingston City Commission apparently believes the possibility of eliminating a public position is a private matter.

Chairman James Bennett read a short statement during Tuesday’s meeting wrongly claiming that “the demands of individual privacy clearly exceed the merits of public disclosure.”

If you’re scratching your head, you’re not alone.

We believe the commission knew better, and that the four commissioners in attendance were well aware that these matters should not be discussed behind closed doors. Commissioner Sarah Sandberg was absent.

The public clearly and undeniably has a right to know and weigh in on what jobs the local government is considering for the chopping block as it works to eliminate a $131,000 shortfall in the annual budget. 

Are we talking about eliminating  police officers? A firefighter? Plow truck drivers? Unfortunately, the public has no idea what’s on the table, if anything. That’s not fair to taxpayers, the public or the employees of the city of Livingston.

Furthermore, there was no mention on the agenda about the possibility of an executive session. All of this sounds hypocritical of a commission that frequently touts its commitment to transparency.

The decision to shut out the public could have consequences if the commission ultimately cuts a position based on its discussion during the closed executive session, according to Mike Meloy, an attorney with the Montana Freedom of Information Hotline.

“A court certainly could void the decision to eliminate the position because the closure of the meeting to the public was illegal,” Meloy told The Enterprise on Wednesday.

When a reporter from The Enterprise asked about the decision to close the meeting Tuesday, the acting city attorney cited the state’s open meeting laws.

If you haven’t read the state’s open meeting laws, let us assure you they are pretty straightforward.

These laws state in part that “public boards, commissions, councils and other public agencies in this state exist to aid in the conduct of the people’s business.” 

The law goes a step further — perhaps Montana lawmakers wanted to make their intent very clear — stating that this part of the law “shall be liberally construed” to favor openness.

Montana’s 1972 Constitution and its right-to-know sections sought to cement the public’s right to attend meetings, inspect public documents and participate in the decisions of the local government.

The commission should be commended for working to balance the budget, but future discussions on the possibility of job cuts must be in accordance with state law and open to the public that it represents.

— Justin Post
Enterprise Managing Editor