Museum meeting redo held after open meetings violation

Casey S. Elliott
Wednesday, April 7, 2021

The Beaverhead County Museum’s board of trustees discussed executive director candidates Monday – the second time in a week – as the previous meeting was not properly noticed per Montana Open Meetings law.

The open meetings law requires public bodies to provide adequate notice for people to attend and comment on the items being discussed. Beaverhead County’s policy for notice requires agendas be posted at the county courthouse, Dillon City Hall, and forwarded to all post offices in the county 48 hours before the meeting.

The museum board was made aware of its error during the public comment portion of its March 29 meeting by the Dillon Tribune.

Board Chairman John Garry said he thought posting the information in the Dillonite Daily was sufficient, and he had told the county commissioners of the planned meeting. He said he did not realize the notice had to be sent to the county to post.

This is not the first time the museum’s trustee board failed to follow open meetings requirements.

On May 20, 2020, the board posted its meeting as a Zoom-only meeting, but decided that morning to hold it in a different location that did not have internet access. Attendees on Zoom – including then-Executive Director Cheryl Pierce – did not find out about the change until after the meeting had started in the new location.

The board also failed to file its minutes from that same meeting with the county, as required in Montana’s public records law. The minutes – provided to the Dillon Tribune Tuesday morning by the administrator at the museum – reflect the meeting violation.

“The Director was set up to host the scheduled ZOOM Meeting in her office at the Main Museum at 5 pm. Trustees Donna Jones and Aggie Helle were also set up on computers at the Main Museum for the Zoom Meeting and logged in at 5 p.m. Dillon Tribune reporter, Casey Elliott was signed in and ready to participate in the Zoom Meeting at 5 p.m. Trustee Donna Jones discovered the rest of the Board and guests had begun the meeting in the Depot Theater at 5 pm. Director Cheryl Pierce informed Casey Elliott that the meeting venue had been moved to the Depot Theater and without internet, the meeting was not held virtually via Zoom. The Director, Cheryl Pierce, brought a notebook and paper to take minutes for the meeting already in progress,” the May 20, 2020 minutes stated.

Peter “Mike” Meloy, attorney for the Freedom of Information Hotline for Montana residents and journalists, said changing the location at the last minute – or not providing enough notice – both qualify as open meetings violations.

Any action or decision undertaken at these meetings is nullified and must be done again in a properly-noticed future meeting.

Garry added the board would hold the meeting again as soon as could be arranged – which it did Monday. This pushed back the board’s goal of hiring a new executive director. The board makes its recommendations on the candidate, which are then sent to the commissioners to approve for hire (see related story).

The commissioners have also failed to follow procedure, most recently at the end of last year. Beaverhead County Attorney Jed C. Fitch scolded the county commissioners for a similar issue that resulted from the commission agreeing to terms to remove an unused communications tower from a landowner’s property. The commissioners had agreed to the terms in an unposted meeting; the county attorney became aware of it when the landowner wanted to change the terms. Both parties had to hash it all out again at the Dec. 14, 2020 commission meeting. Commissioner and Chairman

Commissioner and Chairman John Jackson said he was told of the March 29 meeting, but did not forward that information to appropriate staff. He said he believed that was the responsibility of the chairman of the board.

Commissioner Tom Rice said he was not told of the meeting, though he was out of the office last week.

Commissioner Mike McGinley said the meeting was posted in error, but stressed the intent was not to mislead or hide the board’s actions from the public.

“No, it was not a proper posting...they can’t use that (the Dillonite) as a proper posting place. But it’s smart to use it, too,” he said. “Their intent was honorable, but they missed a piece – the legal piece.”

McGinley added he spoke with Garry after the May 20 violation.

“I thought he understood the process of getting these posted,” he said.

The problem is more widespread than people realize, and the Montana legislature is taking a stab at addressing it.

House Bill 694 aims to increase compliance with Montana’s public records and open meetings laws and ensure accountability among volunteer and elected boards across the state. A public hearing on HB 694 was held April 1 with the House’s local government committee. That committee voted to move the amended legislation to the next step in the process.

The county takes part in annual training for public records compliance with Montana laws, and has offered that training to the volunteers serving on public boards, McGinley said. The difficulty is in getting those individuals to attend, and apply what they learn to their role on those boards.

“If you are on a board, you do have that responsibility. We need to make sure all the chairmen get to these trainings,” he added. “It’s sort of on us to make sure these people have (the training).”