Citizens for Open Government, Inc. v. City of Polson

Citizens for Open Government, Inc. v. City of Polson, 2015 MT 55 (Feb. 24, 2015) (Baker, J.) (5-0, aff’d)

Issue: (1) Whether citizens’ group was denied its right under Montana’s open meeting laws to participate in an executive session of the City Commission; (2) whether the district court abused its discretion by declining to void the city’s decision to present an offer letter to a city manager candidate; and (3) whether the district court properly determined facts in a summary judgment proceeding without an evidentiary hearing on the merits.

Short Answer: (1) Yes; (2) no; and (3) yes, as there were no genuine disputes of material fact.

Affirmed

Facts: The city of Polson began the process of hiring a new city manager in the spring of 2013. Between April-September, it held several public meetings at which the public had opportunity to comment. The commission narrowed down the applicants to five finalists.

The commission’s Sept. 12 public meeting included a closed executive session to meet with interview panels and deliberate on the selection of the city manager. After the session, the commission decided to present an offer letter to a candidate. With authority from the commission, the mayor negotiated a contract with a candidate. The commission approved the contract at a public meeting, and provided copies of the signed contract to members of the public.

Procedural Posture & Holding: Citizen sued on October 15, 2013, contending the Sept, 12 executive session violated Citizens’ right to participate. The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. The district court granted the city’s motion after determining that even if the executive session violated open meeting laws, any violation did not justify voiding the contract. Citizens appeals, and the Supreme Court affirms.

Reasoning: (1) The executive session was subject to Montana’s open meeting laws. The commission should have made a determination that the demands of individual privacy exceeded the merits of public disclosure before closing the meeting.

(2) The district court noted that the hiring was subject to final approval by the commission, and that the commission held two public meetings after the executive session, at which it took public comment. The district court concluded that voiding the decision to offer a contract would serve no substantial public purpose.

A district court has discretion to void a decision made in violation of the open meeting laws. This Court has held that courts did not abuse their discretion by declining to void actions taken at a closed meeting when there were subsequent opportunities for public comment. The district court here did not abuse its discretion.

(3) Citizens waived its right to an evidentiary hearing by failing to request one under Rule 56(c)(2). Moreover, the record does not reveal any genuine dispute of material fact.