Covert oops 

The real reason a secret GOP caucus meeting is a big deal

We’ve still got seven weeks before the legislature comes into session, but Montana Republicans have started the 2015 lawmaking season with a bang. It was the kind of bang you make when you’re sneaking around in the dark and find the coffee table, but it was impressive nonetheless.

Last week, about 50 House Republicans met in the basement of Jorgensen’s Inn & Suites in Helena for a secret meeting presided over by Majority Leader Keith Regier, R–Kalispell. Thanks to a report by John S. Adams, I read about it in the Great Falls Tribune. So the headline here is not so much “Republicans hold secret meeting” as “Republicans hold secret meeting, reports newspaper.”

There is an argument to be made that the meeting itself was illegal. In a 1998 right-to-know case brought by 22 Montana news organizations, District Judge Thomas Honzel ruled that the state constitution requires legislative caucus meetings to be open to the public.

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  • Chad Harder

Last week’s meeting was not publicly announced. Given that it involved a quorum of one party’s legislators, who were invited via—I’m not making this up—secret notes handed out by Republican whips, it probably constituted a caucus in violation of state law.

I’m not especially interested in that aspect of the story, though. What interests me is (A) why Regier and 2013 Senate Majority leader Jeff Essmann, R–Billings, went to such trouble to keep last week’s caucus secret, and (B) how they so manifestly failed.

In defending element (A), Essmann has deployed a series of contradictory explanations that intrigue more than they excuse. He insists that the meeting was totally not a big deal, since its purpose was merely to hand out a survey and not to discuss future legislation.

“I think the critical question is whether democracy is improved or hindered if people can’t have frank discussions,” he told the Tribune. “The purpose of the open meeting laws, where we decide things, which we do in committee and on the floor, are open.”

First of all, the survey had “11-13-14 Republican House Caucus” printed at the top, which was probably a mistake from a legal standpoint. Second, open meeting laws cover more than just committee and floor meetings; that’s the whole point of Honzel’s 1998 decision. Third, and most importantly, Essmann’s survey claim doesn’t make sense, especially given his remark about “frank discussions.”

His explanation forces us to decide whether he is incompetent or merely lying. If the only purpose of the meeting was to survey Republican lawmakers, why not hand out surveys instead of invitations? I am worried about a GOP in which the plan to is to hand out notes inviting everyone to a secret meeting where we hand out surveys. That is not sterling organizational competence, right there.

Fortunately for all of us, Essmann does business more efficiently than that. So what kind of “frank discussions” did Republicans have during the caucus whose sole purpose was to hand out a survey? And what about them was so frank that they had to be held secretly in a basement?

The mind boggles, which is exactly why Republicans should embrace open-meetings law. Probably, nothing they discussed last week is worse than what I can imagine. In starting the legislative pre-season with a secret caucus, Regier and Essmann have made the Montana GOP like the alien in Alien: much more scary because we can’t really see it.

I don’t know what Helena’s Republican majority is planning for next year. Given that they already rejected Medicare funding and tried to nullify federal gun laws in public, I can’t imagine what they would keep secret. But perhaps the only secret here is that the leadership of the Montana GOP has become comically paranoid.

That secret has become public, too. I don’t think it’s a big deal that Republicans in Helena held a secret caucus meeting. I think it’s a big deal that they felt they needed to, and a smaller but compounding deal that they did it so badly. These two revelations suggest the Republican Party of Montana underestimates our ability to grasp its plans and overestimates its own ability to execute them.

Every legislator who attended that meeting is a public figure now. They represent the public, and they enjoy a public mandate. The only way to fulfill that mandate is publicly. If the GOP is considering ideas so crazy that it can’t have “frank discussions” about them in public view, maybe those ideas should not become public policy.

The Republican Party cannot do what’s best for Montana without Montanans finding out. Last week’s meeting suggested they can’t do anything without us finding out. Maybe Essmann and Regier should think of that as a good thing. Maybe public awareness of what our lawmakers do is a useful tool for both the GOP and voters. It’s their legislature for the next two years, but it’s still our state.

Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and sci-fi movies at combatblog.net. His column appears weekly in the Independent.

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