A proposal before the Legislature to rewrite Montana's open-record laws would help prevent the premature destruction of public information and require notes to be kept when city councils, school boards or other entities meet behind closed doors.
House Bill 123 faces a hearing Monday in the Senate State Administration Committee after clearing the House last month on a vote of 90-9.
Sponsor Rep. Donald Jones, a Billings Republican, said the measure would bolster Montana's strong open-record policies – which are enshrined in the state Constitution – by making sure government officials follow the rules on retaining documents.
Some of Montana's laws on the public release of public documents date to 1895, Jones said, adding that his 27-page bill aims to update, reorganize and clarify those rules.
"In 1895, we didn't have police with cameras in their cars or recording devices. We had (statutes) still requiring microfiche for all documents," he said. "We do have a great open records law. If anything, this strengthens open records."
The bill also requires that notes or minutes be kept when public bodies or commissions meet in private executive sessions. Those notes would not automatically be made public, but they could be released under court order.
The governor's budget office says the bill would make it more complex to maintain records and prove costly for state and local agencies. In its analysis of Jones' measure, the budget office said it would require new staff to be hired to comply with records-management requirements. That would cost roughly $300,000 annually, the budget office said.
Jones said that agencies already should be doing most of the work required under the bill and that the cost estimate amounts to a tacit admission that they are not doing so.
John Moore said he trained agency workers on freedom of information matters when he used to work for the state, and found that Montana has a patchwork of rules on public records that are sometimes applied differently.
"It's definitely a mess in need of an overhaul. It hasn't evolved into the digital age," the Helena resident said during testimony on the bill in February before a senate committee.
When Jones' measure was first introduced, the Montana Newspaper Association raised concerns that it included overly-broad security restrictions. Those would have exempted from release information such as blueprints, architectural floor plans and the numbers of workers at schools, jails, and other public facilities.
Those exemptions were removed from the bill that passed the House. But newspaper association lobbyist John MacDonald said a provision that restricts the release of some distribution lists – the names of all state-licensed hunters, for example – remained a worry. Some lists still would be available, such as those naming new voters.
"We don't believe this bill is perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but we generally are supportive," MacDonald said.
Concerns also were brought by representatives of the utility and oil and gas industries. They said during hearings in the House that the measure would force the disclosure of trade secrets submitted confidentially to public bodies, such as during a rate case before the Public Service Commission. An amendment was added to carve out from public disclosure information that's deemed confidential under state law.