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Local government officials are twisting themselves into pretzels to justify shutting the public out of mediation talks aimed at settling a lawsuit between the city and county. State law demands government proceedings be open to the public except in cases where an individual’s privacy supersedes the public’s right to know.

Those officials can’t point to any individual’s right to privacy in this case – because there is none. The law further stipulates: “A meeting may not be closed to discuss strategy to be followed in litigation in which the only parties are public bodies …”

But by carefully avoiding having a quorum of elected city or county officials in the room at the same time, they claim they can conduct the process in secrecy. Only when a settlement is reached and the city and county commissions are asked to sign off on it in open meetings will the public have a right to observe.

So why are they intent on closing these negotiations? Perhaps out of embarrassment they had to hire an out-of-town lawyer to settle a lawsuit that never should have happened in the first place, or at the least should have been settled years ago? Or maybe it’s embarrassment about another instance when the city and county can’t work together.

The case involves road improvements around the Gallatin County Regional Park, which lies on the western edge of Bozeman. In 2016, city commissioners created a special improvement district to pay for the improvements. And, since one road on the edge of the park falls under county jurisdiction, the city billed the county for just under $1 million for its share of the work.

The county sued in and then re-sued after a court threw out the first suit. The county ultimately alleged the city didn’t conduct the bidding process for the work correctly.

Really? The city and county should have hammered out a settlement for this dispute years ago.

However this is resolved, taxpayers are on the hook for the bill – it’s just a question of which taxpayers, city or county or both. And taxpayers are likewise on the hook for whatever legal costs arise from the lawsuits and the mediation process.

And the law is clear: Those taxpayers certainly have the right to observe the mediation process that produces a final solution.

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Editorial Board

  • Mark Dobie, publisher
  • Nick Ehli, managing editor
  • Bill Wilke, opinion page editor
  • Richard Broome, community member
  • Renee Gavin, community member
  • Will Swearingen, community member
  • Angie Wasia, community member

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