Montana's public meeting laws are very clear — the business of the public must be conducted in public. However, a distinction needs to be made between a public meeting and a meeting held in public. Unlike a public meeting, the meetings of the City Commission are for the purpose of conducting the business of the city and are held in public. The commission members must consider comments on matters they will be making decisions about, but at some point they need to be able to move on and make the decisions that the voters have entrusted them to make. Setting reasonable limits on the time for public comments is not inappropriate. I do think that commissioners need to make themselves very available to the public in other settings, such as neighborhood council meetings or other public meetings convened to discuss specific issues, to hear the comments of members of the community.
While she may have "made her point very well," what she said is gobbledeegook. There is no distinction between a "public meeting" and a "meeting held in public."
A meeting is "the convening of a quorum of the constituent membership of a public agency or association described in 2-3-203, whether corporal or by means of electronic equipment, to hear, discuss, or act upon a matter over which the agency has supervision, control, jurisdiction, or advisory power. " Unless dictated by the needs of individual privacy or private litigation, meetings need to be opened.
According to Ms. Hensley's statement, City Commission meetings, "unlike a public meeting, are for the purpose of conducting the business of the city and are held in public." In other words, City Commission meetings are meetings for the Commission to "hear, discuss, or act upon" matters "over which the [Commission] has supervision, control, jurisdiction, or advisory power." Sounds like a public meeting to me.
Ms. Hensley can be excused, maybe, for ignorance of the finer points of the open meeting law. But I cannot excuse a mindset that would suggest that when the City Commission conducts the business of the City, it merely happens to hold those meetings in public, apparently at the leisure of the Commission, and there is really no requirement for public input.
While Ms. Hensley seems like a very affable and reasonable person, her comments bespeak a real misconception about the fundamental nature of the democratic process. This almost sounds like something a staff member might try to make up to justify exclusion of the public.
Unless she retracts her statement, I don't know how anyone could vote for someone who does not recognize the public's role in its own government.