McGrath Opinion Addresses Public Meetings, Public Comment
HELENA – In a formal opinion issued today, Montana Attorney General Mike McGrath held that members of the public have a right to comment at public meetings of a city council, and the public participation requirements of state law apply to city governments as well as state agencies.
Billings City Attorney Brent Brooks requested the opinion, inquiring what actions of a city council require public notice and public comment in light of legislation passed in 2003. The passage of House Bill 94 in 2003 added a right to comment on matters that are not on the council agenda, but are within the jurisdiction of the entity conducting the meeting.
McGrath held that a city council must “provide an agenda item for public comment on non-agenda, public matters.” The requirement applies only when the comments are of “significant interest to the public.”
The opinion says the public participation provisions of state law extend to advisory boards, commissions and committees appointed by a city council, subject to the limitation that such groups need not permit public comment on matters that are not of significant interest to the public. Informal work sessions of a city council or its committees are considered “meetings,” and the agendas for such meetings must include a period for public comment on non-agenda, public items.
McGrath noted that public comment is allowed for matters of public interest even when those matters may involve an interest in individual privacy. At the same time, such a public comment period does not “provide a license for members of the public to violate the privacy rights of other persons,” and the presiding officer retains the authority to close a meeting to protect individual privacy rights.
Finally, a council cannot take action on an item raised during the public-comment period without first placing the item on an agenda for a future meeting and providing the required notice. Matters that are ministerial and items that are not of significant public interest, however, may be added to the council agenda and acted upon at the same meeting.
Opinions of the attorney general carry the weight of law unless a court overturns them or the legislature modifies the laws involved.