The race is on for public records 

Back in 2001, when whistleblowers were alleging that the Missoula Wastewater Treatment Plant was illegally releasing sewage and neglecting to maintain treatment systems, Missoula citizen Tony Tweedale thought he would investigate the allegations on his own. But when Tweedale showed up unannounced at the plant asking for public records, he says he was told he needed to make an official request at city hall.

“In my mind that ruined any chance of catching them with public records that they might temporarily hide,” he says. “To be a little more concrete, when the whistleblowers first went public, I was invited to take a tour of the plant by one of the whistleblowers, and he showed me part of the log book [for environmental quality tests]…After I saw that, that part of the log book disappeared.”

The experience led Tweedale to decide that the best way around the alleged problem was to amend a local resolution dealing with access to public records. After months of figuring out the best way to challenge the city’s policies, he approached the City Council with amendments to encourage speedy, cheap and effective records access. Picked up by Councilman Jim McGrath, the changes would lower copying fees, make it easier to request records anonymously and encourage a “soon as possible” policy for fulfilling requests. The amendments are currently making their way though City Council.

“The idea is try to clarify some language,” says City Clerk Marty Rehbein of the resolution rewrite.

Rehbein, who is working on the amendments with McGrath, believes that the changes are needed to elucidate the vagaries that allowed city employees to give Tweedale the runaround.

“The main problem is that the city requires any non-routine public record, which is basically all public records, to be requested through a form, and you have to wait up until ten days to see if your request will be filled,” he says.

While the new wording won’t change the ten-day requirement, it will create a way to track and hold departments accountable if they aren’t responding to requests in a “a timely fashion,” through appeals to the mayor’s office.

Tweedale doesn’t think the changes go far enough, rather that McGrath and Rehbein’s efforts are just a platform.

“It’s a good start,” he says. “But I still think it doesn’t get to the issue of inspecting public records immediately whenever possible.”

But Tweedale also knows that the proposed changes could undergo further transformation after a public hearing, which will take place at the June 23 council meeting.

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