Montana’s Constitution is very clear about the public’s right to know and right to participate in all levels of government from school boards, to city councils, to county government, to state government. “No person shall be deprived of the right to examine documents or to observe the deliberations of all public bodies or agencies of the state government and its subdivisions ...” reads Article II, Section 9. Furthermore, Article II, Section 8, says that the public has the right to expect governmental agencies to give them the chance to participate by commenting before final action is taken on any measure.
With Gov. Steve Bulloch ordering the state into a shelter-in-place/stay-at-home mode to reduce the spread of the viral COVID-19 illness, local government officials in Teton County have scrambled to make sure they are getting essential business done while still allowing citizens to participate. The way each different board or commission is doing this varies. The Choteau school board and the Choteau City Council are using Zoom video conferencing software. The Teton Airport Commission is using the same platform as the Judicial Video Nework. Some are simply using meeting via conference call, but all are making sure that their meeting notices explain how citizens can log-in or dial-in in to participate.
Teton County residents should be proud of their local officials for embracing the public’s right to know and to participate and for working hard to make sure that citizens aren’t cut out of the decision-making process.
By and large, elected and appointed officials in our county are following the Letter of Advice developed by the Montana League of Cities and Towns. The MLCT sets out five main guidelines for local government during the COVID-19 outbreak: 1. Cancel non-essential meetings; 2. Limit public meetings to critical items only; 3. Determine type of meeting (in person or via conferencing softward); 4. Provide notice to the public of the meeting; and 5. When meeting remotely, make sure the public can participate and make sure that documents to be considered by the board are readily available before the meeting to members of the public.
Elsewhere in the state, other public entities have not been as diligent in safe-guarding the public’s right to participate as officials in Teton County have been. We applaud our school boards, our city councils, water and sewer district boards, library boards and county commissioners for embracing digital technology and making sure that important but controversial decisions are not being made during this time when public participation is more difficult than usual.