In the basement. That's where Carol Bellin found the University of Montana's 16 highest-ranking officials when she walked into their closed-door conversation in Main Hall last December.
The administrators assumed the 63-year-old nontraditional student was lost. Then-president Royce Engstrom leaned over, and Bellin told him she was looking for the weekly meeting of his cabinet team. Engstrom confirmed she was in the right place.
"I sat down. They continued on with their meeting, but everyone felt kind of uncomfortable," she says. "So I just showed up [again] the next week."
Just like that, Bellin had cracked the door to some of the highest-level discussions on campus. The cabinet includes UM's slate of vice presidents and unit directors, who meet regularly to advise the president. The attendees' combined annual salaries appear to exceed $2 million. Though the group takes no formal votes, its importance to campus decision-making was underscored last year when Engstrom expanded its membership to "help ensure that all good ideas are brought to the table" as he prepared to cut jobs.
Since that point, Bellin and another local citizen-activist, Ross Best, pushed to make the meetings accessible to the public, too. No one had ever been denied entry to a cabinet meeting, but without any public notice, no one knew when and where to show up or what topics were being discussed. UM's chief legal counsel, Lucy France, told Best in a March 2016 letter that cabinet gatherings are not "open meetings" because they don't involve policy deliberations or decisions.
Bellin saw Engstrom's ouster as a chance to make those deliberations more transparent. She'd had success doing so with Missoula County Public Schools more than a decade ago, when she similarly waltzed into a superintendent's cabinet meeting (those meetings are now open and announced).
Incoming UM president Sheila Stearns, entering a campus on the cusp of more contentious budget-cutting decisions, was receptive to Bellin's entreaties. Since January, meeting details (UH 004, Wednesdays at 9 a.m.) and agendas have been posted online, and each meeting has included time for public comment.
Bellin says that attending has given her valuable insight into how the university operates. Enrollment has been an agenda topic every week, and Bellin says she's been able to listen as administrators discuss concerns ranging from whether UM will be able to earn its share of state performance funding to issues about who on campus can access student records.
"There's no question ... that policy decisions are being formulated," she says.
The underlying issue isn't fully resolved, however. UM and state officials continue to argue that Montana's public notice requirements don't apply to cabinet meetings. Describing the cabinet as an "informative chatting group," Stearns says she's still evaluating how to go forward. One idea is to post agendas only when specific policy decisions are being discussed instead of every week. But she says she intends to err on the side of openness.
"If you're going to be debating policy, you absolutely need to be posting meetings, and we will," she says.
In order to hold Stearns to her word, Bellin says, she's going to need some help. This semester she has class on Wednesday mornings.