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Tip of the e-berg

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Last week the Missoula City Council Committee of the Whole agreed that they would stop sending each other e-mails during meetings. But because no council member made a motion to bring the matter up for formal discussion, City Attorney Jim Nugent never directly answered any legal questions regarding the e-mails.

Without a thorough legal assessment, other forms of council correspondence, like electronic messaging between members outside of meetings and Ward 3 Councilman Bob Jaffe’s weekly listserv—an e-mail broadcast that updates readers to the workings of the council—might still be questioned as potential violations of state open government laws.

Jaffe says he’s not 100 percent clear on where to draw the line.

“If the interpretation [of the Open Meeting Law] is that any discussion of the issues in a non-public setting is breaking the law, then the listserv would have to stop,” Jaffe says. But he doesn’t plan on shutting it down until a member of the community or council makes an issue about it.

Jaffe says more than 400 people subscribe to his diary-like e-mails, and many respond with commentary about issues like bike lanes and impact fees. He recognizes that if he and fellow councilors on the listserv comment enough to constitute a quorum, they could get into trouble, because the digital forum could be considered a public meeting that sidesteps state right-to-know laws.

“It’s something mainly for government wonks. It’s not the type of thing the average person would find very interesting,” he says.

City Attorney Nugent has cautioned council members to limit their e-mail messaging, saying, “The prudent, more open and most legal legislative member practice would be for legislative body members to not substantively discuss, debate or deliberate on city council agenda items in non-public meeting…even if less than a quorum of the legislative body members are present and/or participating.”

For now, e-mail at meetings may stop, but without a clear rule, the controversy may resurface in the future.

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