Monday, April 20, 2015

Montana paper wins open-records request and exposes city money scheme

In January, the city sued The Billings Gazette for filing a public records request about the "potential mishandling of public money at a Montana landfill," Corey Hutchins reports for the Columbia Journalism Review.

The city's support for the decision rested on a constitutional provision in Montana that gives citizens a right to privacy and the claim that giving the records to The Gazette could compromise the privacy rights of employees. The judge did not think it was a valid argument. Yellowstone County District Judge Mike Moses ruled that the city had improperly sued the newspaper and required the city to reveal more than 1,000 pages of documents.

Almost six months after making the records request, The Gazette could let readers know what happened at the city landfill. The story, called "Missing money scheme avoided detected by city of Billings for years," made the front page. "Nearly 1,200 pages of documents . . . shed light on a system of taking cash from the city's recycling program and channeling the money into coffee, food, kitchen supplies and personal use," Mike Ferguson and Darrell Ehrlick write for The Gazette.

The story probably would have gone unreported if it hadn't been for The Gazette's persistence. Editor Darrell Ehrlick told Hutchins, "It takes a lot of money to fight these cases, and there's nothing that would necessarily preclude the city or any other government entity from going down this road again." (Read more)

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