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Star Editorial

How about a little transparency?

Almost every candidate for public office makes a promise that, if elected, he or she will work hard to make the government more transparent and more accountable. Our three new commissioners are not the exception. We know that the two senior commissioners also believe in transparency and openness of government. As a politician you can’t go wrong on this issue. It’s a cherished constitutional right of every individual in our great state to know what their government is doing and to be able to participate in a meaningful manner.

At the county level, the base line of openness in government is the faithful publishing of an accurate agenda itemizing the business to be taken up and the decisions to be made by the commissioners. Without an accurate, dependable and transparent agenda the public is hamstrung to begin with if they are trying to track and participate in government affairs.

The agenda of the Ravalli County Commissioners is not up to par. It is wrong, obscure, and/or misleading too many times. That makes it undependable.

Take for example the agenda item of July 20 – Discussion and possible decision on Impact Fee Advisory Board.

Two seats on the board were expired and the commissioners had been conducting interviews with applicants for the positions over the preceding weeks. A Star reporter attended the meeting, expecting the appointments to be made.

The Commission Chair started out by noting that the current president of the Impact Fee Committee had called asking for a delay because he could not make the meeting on such short notice. What wasn’t said was that the President also thought it was a matter of filling some board seats.

At the outset Commissioner Ron Stoltz said that he put this on the agenda to discuss doing away with the committee entirely. The commissioners quickly came to agreement over that. As Commissioner Suzy Foss put it, “Why have an Impact Fee Advisory Committee if you don’t have impact fees?”

The commission was ready to pass a resolution to that effect when Commissioner Greg Chilcott raised the issue of the public notice on the agenda. He wondered if the action being taken was adequately described on the agenda because any decision might be contested. As a result the Commission postponed the issue. It was placed on a subsequent agenda but was then cancelled without explanation.

Placing important decisions to be considered and made on the agenda in a way that the public can clearly discern the scope and nature of the decisions being considered is a key component to a good agenda. If the agenda had been more specific the commissioners could have just done the job and moved on.

Here’s another example from August 1 – Administrative: Discussion and decision of Chair and Vice Chair of Commission.

We thought they were going to choose a new chair and vice chair of the commission. We were not the only ones who thought that. We got telephone calls and e-mails.

Instead, the three new commissioners criticized the performance of Chairman J.R. Iman. No mention was made of the vice chair, and Commissioner Matt Kanenwisher submitted a written proposal for defining the chairman’s powers. It also contained a list of rights that each commissioner has as an individual, such as the right to visit with private groups. No motion was ever made. No vote taken.

My point is that a lot of people were misled by this agenda item.

Then there are the things that just don’t happen. Like the July 26 item – Discussion on comments on “Waters of the US”.

Once again a Star reporter was there. It was the first thing on the agenda for the day. The commissioners were there milling around and talking. Time passed with lots of chitchat. Fifteen minutes after the agenda was set to start, the meeting suddenly came to order. Not a word was said about the first agenda item as the commission took up immediately with the second and following items.

What about “Waters of the US?” To us, it is just another sign that someone is not taking this agenda business seriously.

Along these lines we have the recent August 3 item – All Day – Commissioner Foss and Commissioner Kanenwisher out to a meeting in Missoula for the day.

We read that and thought it was a bit vague, so our reporter asked Commissioner Foss in the hallway a few days before what the meeting in Missoula was about. She said she didn’t think it was in Missoula. No, she said, she was pretty sure that it was not in Missoula, but she wasn’t sure where it was being held. As far as what it was about she didn’t know but thought it was a citizen’s group interested in the budget process.

After the meeting our reporter asked her where she had been and she said the meeting was in Darby. When asked what it was about, Foss said it was about wolves and about the general process of government. When asked who was there, Foss refused to answer, saying she had concerns about the citizens’ right to privacy.

Commissioner Kanenwisher was asked about the meeting in Missoula that was on the agenda and he said it didn’t happen. He said having it on the agenda was a mistake; since there was no quorum, there was no meeting and it didn’t have to be on there. He said he thought maybe it was put on just so people would know that they were going to be out of the office that day. When asked if he went to the meeting in Darby with Commissioner Foss, Kanenwisher didn’t answer.

In every case excuses are offered. But at a certain point excuses don’t mean much except that something is systematically wrong here. Too many erroneous items, too many incorrect items, too many misleading items. It makes the commissioners’ agenda undependable and untrustable. It thwarts public participation instead of enabling it.

A few more examples from July:

• July 11 – Personnel Matter – possible closed door due to privacy concern under Montana statutes.

• July 25 – Personnel Matter – possible closed door due to privacy under Montana statutes.

Were these meetings about the same thing, did they concern the same issue?

There is no way to tell from the agenda what the issue is. It has only been generally described as about personnel and possibly closed. The fact is there must be an issue under consideration at an open and properly noticed meeting before it can be closed for confidential discussion.

We do not believe that the county is necessarily violating the public meetings law when it holds these meetings. But anyone in attendance will hear what the issue is and why the meeting is being closed because the chairman must weigh the right of privacy claims against the public’s right to know before closing the meeting. He must also determine if the person wants to waive their right to privacy or not.

If all this information can be obtained by attending the meeting, why not put some of it on the agenda?

We need some transparency in our local government. Let’s hope some of these commissioners remember what they said about transparency of government before they got elected and start to act on it.

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