Allen v. Lakeside Neighborhood Planning Committee

Allen v. Lakeside Neighborhood Planning Committee, 2013 MT 237 (Aug. 20. 2013) (5-0) (Cotter, J.)

Issue: (1) Whether the district court erred when it declined to void the 2010 Lakeside Neighborhood Plan and determined that Plaintiffs could obtain no relief on their claims for violations of Montana’s open meeting laws; and (2) whether the district court erred in determining that a public meeting could not be held via a Yahoo email group.

Short Answer: (1) No, and (2) no.

Affirmed

Facts: In 2007, Flathead County adopted a growth policy, which acknowledged the vitality of existing neighborhood plan as well as the possibility that some plans would have to be revised. The Flathead County Planning Board determined that the 1995 Lakeside Neighborhood Plan required revisions, and authorized the rewriting of the plan. The Lakeside Community Council created the Lakeside Neighborhood Planning Committee to assist with updating the 1995 plan.

The planning committee held numerous meeting in 2007-2008, most in private homes without adequate notice or invitation to the public. The committee also created a password-protected Yahoo Group website for the exclusive use of committee members. A separate public website was created, but contained limited information and materials. After people complained, the Flathead county attorney advised the committee it was subject to Montana’s open meeting laws. After October 13, 2008, all committee meetings were properly noticed and held at the Lakeside library.

In June 2009, 19 individuals filed a lawsuit against the committee and Flathead County, claiming the committee had violated Montana’s open meeting laws. In May 2010, the parties stipulated to staying the case until the commissioners either approved or rejected the recommended plan.

In September 2010, the Flathead County Planning Board approved the revised Lakeside Neighborhood Plan as submitted by the planning committee, and forwarded it to the county commissioners. The commissioners adopted the plan in December 2010. Once adopted, the complaint was revived in district court. The district court enjoined implementation of the plan in March 2011, pending the final outcome of this lawsuit.

Procedural Posture & Holding: All parties moved for summary judgment on Plaintiffs’ claims that the committee had violated the open meeting laws and unlawfully destroyed public records by deleting files that had been posted on the private Yahoo website. The Plaintiffs sought to have the Plan declared void, but the district court concluded this was not an appropriate remedy for the offenses. The court further held that “meetings” could not be held on Yahoo Group. Plaintiffs appeal, and the Supreme Court affirms.

Reasoning: (1) The district court determined that the planning committee was a public or governmental body required to hold open meetings, and that it had violated that obligation. It further held that the committee was not an “agency” and that voiding the entire plan was not an available remedy. The court noted that Plaintiffs’ original complaint did not challenge the county’s adoption of the plan and did not seek to void the plan. Because the earliest drafts of the plan were revised after the committee opened its meetings to the public, the court reasoned that voiding early versions of the plan would be an idle act. The Supreme Court agrees, distinguishing Bryan v. Yellowstone County on its facts.

As for the claims against the county commissioners, Plaintiffs have not identified any wrong committed by the county. The Supreme Court agrees that voiding the commissioners’ adoption of the plan is not an appropriate remedy.

Finally, the Court agrees that the Lakeside planning committee is not an “agency” under §§ 2-3-114 and -213, MCA. An agency decision reached in violation of open meeting laws may be voided, but the planning committee is an advisory committee, not an agency. The committee took steps to provide notice of and access to its meetings after October 2008, and the public had an opportunity to participate in dozens of meetings. The Court concludes that vacating the plan and starting the process over is not an appropriate remedy.

(2) While meetings convened by electronic equipment must comply with open meeting laws, the technical limitations of the Yahoo Group at the time prohibited a quorum from convening. The Court declines to state that a meeting could never be convened by way of a Yahoo email group, and cautions public officers that conducting public business via email potentially exposes them to claims of having violated open meeting laws.