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A fraction of a quorum is not a quorum-Media lawsuit alleging open-meetings violation dismissed

Posted on July 12, 2021

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By: Lily Crespo Esq.

Quick takeaway: Part of a quorum is not a full quorum. This decision clarifies that the Montana Open Meetings Law will not apply to discussions about government or school business without a quorum. Read our previous coverage of the MT open meetings law here.

Members of a legislative committee can hold a closed meeting to discuss votes or other subjects, as long as the number of lawmakers in the room is less than a quorum. District Judge Mike Manahan dismissed a lawsuit brought by Montana news media groups, objecting to majority Republicans’ practice of recessing committee meetings to discuss committee business in private – and then returning to vote.

During a meeting of the House Judiciary Committee on Jan. 12, Usher, the chairman, had recessed the meeting before the panel voted on several controversial anti-abortion bills. All but a few of the committee’s Republicans then met in a closed meeting in another room, denying access to reporters.

They returned to the main meeting room about a half-hour later and voted on the bill.

These closed committee “caucuses” by Republicans – before significant votes are taken — are a frequent practice in the Montana House.

Background: A group of Montana media organizations filed suit against House Judiciary Committee Chair Barry Usher. The media organizations’ complaint alleged that Usher violated the public’s constitutional right to know and state open-meeting laws by closing a discussion among Republican committee members to Montana Free Press reporter Mara Silvers. Usher’s motion to dismiss the case argued that the Jan. 21 discussion, which took place during a recess of a House Judiciary Committee meeting, did not satisfy the statutory definition of “meeting” because attendance was intentionally limited to eight or nine committee members — a majority of the majority-Republican membership of the committee, but too few to constitute a quorum of the 19-member committee as a whole.

What it means for school districts: In Menahan’s ruling he said he’s not willing to redefine a quorum as a “majority of the majority.” “In this case, the eight or nine legislators who gathered in the Capitol basement did not constitute a quorum of the committee, hence no `meeting’ occurred,” he wrote. The Montana Open Meetings Law generally permits conversation with fellow board members outside of board meetings, so long as they are not doing so among a quorum, discussing business of the district.

As defined by statute, a meeting is a convening of a quorum of the constituent membership of’ the public or governmental body or board, whether corporal or by means of electronic equipment, to hear, discuss, or act upon a matter over which the [body or board] has supervision, control, jurisdiction, or advisory power.” Section 2-3-202, MCA. Raap v. Bd. of Trustees, Wolf Point Sch. Dist., 414 P.3d 788 (Mont. 2018)

As you consider these and other issues, we recommend you speak with your school lawyer or contact Bea, Kevin, Megan, Beth, and Lily by email or at 406-542-1300 to discuss these issues.

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