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Ochenski

Right to know: A call for open government, no ifs, ands or buts

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Thanks to our 1972 Constitution Montanans enjoy some of the best open government provisions in the world. Indeed, it’s not a stretch to say our constitutional guarantee of open government came directly from our long and harsh experience with dominant corporate interests—like Standard Oil, the Anaconda Company, and Montana Power Company—that literally ran the state for their own benefits and exercised undue and unseen influence on public policy decisions. This week, two events highlight just what open government means to us, and illustrate why we find secret government so abhorrent.

First up is a discussion before the Legislative Council, a bi-partisan committee of six senators and six representatives, to hear proposals to re-instate the closed party caucuses of the past. For years, up until 1998, both the Democrats and Republicans held their legislative caucuses in secrecy, secluded behind closed doors from both the public and the media.

For those unfamiliar with what goes on in party caucuses, they were primarily sessions where each party got together daily, and often more frequently, to discuss strategy, plan debates, and count their floor and/or committee votes. While that sounds innocent enough, they were also frequently strong-arm sessions where party leaders harried recalcitrant legislators to vote for or against any given issue based primarily on the dictates of party ideology. For instance, legislators tempted to buck the party position to vote for the needs of their specific districts might well be singled out in front of their fellow legislators and, through peer pressure and other less subtle threats, forced to vote the party line.

A specific example would be the strong-arm tactics used by former Governor Racicot and the Republican party to stuff through the disastrous utility deregulation bill in 1997. Despite the fact that deregulation would undoubtedly affect different legislative districts in different ways—some foreseeably negative—only one lone Republican, Senator John Cobb of Augusta, had the guts to defy the caucus and vote his convictions, which were against utility deregulation. While it’s an example of a horrendous Republican policy blunder, rest assured that history is littered with Democratic caucus blunders as well.

Closed caucuses came to end as a result of court challenges brought by both the media and the Montana Environmental Information Center in 1997 and 1998. After the court ruled—quite correctly—that closing the public and media out of legislative meetings was blatantly unconstitutional, the nature of caucuses changed significantly, as did their effectiveness.

With open caucuses, Democrats and Republicans—as well as members of the public and the media—could sit in on any caucus. Gone was the opportunity for closed-door political arm-twisting, as was, perhaps less constructively, the opportunity for party members to be critical or supportive of various ideas and do so without tipping their hand to the public, media, or the other side of the aisle.

Perhaps the most widely-known gaffe during an open caucus took place late during last year’s turbulent legislative session, when then-Majority Leader Mike Lange, a Billings Republican, unleashed an infamous blast of profanity toward Gov. Brian Schweitzer which, to his dismay, ended up on YouTube and ultimately resulted in his own party removing him from his majority leader’s position.

To their great credit, both Democrat and Republican leaders this week denounced the very bad idea of shutting out the media and public from legislative meetings. State Sen. Roy Brown, a former House Republican leader from Billings running against Schweitzer for the governor’s office, was very direct in his condemnation, telling reporters, “I don’t agree with any restrictions on the media in covering the Legislature. I think it’s pure folly. It should be wide open.”

His words were echoed by Anaconda Democrat Dan Villa, the House minority caucus leader, who said, “I want Montanans to know where I stand and where my colleagues stand on issues in the caucus.”

In contrast to the commendable conviction of Brown and Villa to open their deliberations to public scrutiny comes a secret meeting planned by the Air Force regarding a proposal to build a multi-billion dollar coal-to-liquids plant in Great Falls. If built, the plant would consume huge amounts of state-owned water from the Missouri River and 125 railcars of coal each day to produce an estimated 20-30,000 barrels of jet fuel for the military. It would also require a facility to capture and sequester the enormous amounts of carbon dioxide the plant would produce and necessitate the creation of a legal framework defining its long-term liabilities.

Questions about the proposal are significant, as are the potential impacts on the citizenry and environment. Yet the Air Force, apparently unaware that Montanans value open government, has scheduled an “invitation only” meeting with government officials and business interests to discuss the specifics of the proposal. The public and media have been intentionally shut out.

Alarmingly, Schweitzer, who ran on his commitment to open government, will give the opening remarks at this closed meeting. Also in attendance, will be representatives from his administration and the Department of Commerce, their secret day’s work funded by public tax dollars.

Anne Hedges, the Montana Environmental Information Center’s program director, calls the closed meeting “an outrage,” adding, “The Air Force will listen to public concerns and give pat answers Wednesday night, but the real discussion between the Air Force and industry folks about how the plant will work will take place the next day when the public and press are excluded.”

The right thing to do here is obvious. Schweitzer should follow the excellent example set by both his Republican challenger and his fellow Democrat and tell the Air Force that holding secret meetings with government officials in Montana is “pure folly.” If the Air Force can’t accept the unobstructed public view in which Montana’s government must operate, he should refuse to participate, refuse to let any state official attend, and tell the Air Force to take both its secrecy and coal plant somewhere else.

Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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