Friday, November 29, 2013

Can We Talk, Please?

Christopher Chavasse  writes, in a letter to today’s Missoulian, that the staff and members of the Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission have violated Montana’s open meeting laws by attending private meetings with interested irrigators to answer questions about the CSKT compact. He implies that at these meetings Commission representatives, “with incomes you can only hope for,” brainwash the irrigators in attendance and stray from “points of fact and points of law.”

You’ll have to figure out for yourself, if you can, how Chavasse can pout about being excluded from these meetings and, in the same breath, confidently describe what happens at them. Maybe he’s clairvoyant.

You’ll  also have to figure out for yourself why Chavasse believes that Flathead irrigators – or at least the ones who don’t agree with him -  are so gullible that they can be persuaded to support the compact without reference to the facts or the law. Maybe he figures there’s nobody around as smart as he is.

But when it comes to Montana’s open meeting laws, Chavasse needs a little straightening out.

What these laws refer to are the meetings of public bodies such as the Commission, the Legislature, city councils, and so forth. The laws guarantee that when a quorum of such bodies meets to conduct business, the public has a right to be present.* What the laws do not apply to is meetings of private citizens. No, in this country you are still allowed to meet with whom you want to, where you want to, and to talk about whatever you want to and you don’t have to let Chavasse or any other uninvited guest attend, even if you have asked a public official or employee to come and participate.

Chavasse thinks that this take on the open meeting laws is “weasel-wording” designed to “slick-willie rationalize those secret meetings” and “flout true legislative intent.” Colorful prose aside, I’ve got news for him: if he thinks that legislators intended to write a law that would prohibit them from meeting privately with a group of citizens to discuss some matter of public importance, he’s got another think coming.  That happens all the time. In fact, I’ve got 100 bucks that says that it’s already happened with some of the legislators who oppose the compact.

As far as those incomes are concerned, I at least, and I believe other members of the Commission as well, have attended these private meetings and have been paid absolutely nothing for doing so. When I  attend Commission meetings to do Commission business, I do get paid, but usually it’s less than the minimum wage.

Commission staff is paid, of course, and they attend these meetings because that’s part of the job. And because they are working for the public, it would be wrong for the Commission staff to  meet only with compact supporters. Or to lie to people, as Chavasse somehow concludes they do. But that’s not the way it works. Commission staff will meet with anyone who requests a meeting, and what they will do is provide facts, cite language from the compact, and explain the relevant points of law. They won’t engage in any political schmoozing or character assassination or brain washing or prevaricating. Chavasse should really give that approach a try.

* This is all spelled out in Title 2, Chapter 3, Part 2 of the Montana Code Annotated. Check it out. Click here.

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