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Media e-mail request rapped

May 31, 2002

Ken Miller, state GOP chairman, labeled the $28,000 the governor's office said it will cost to comply with the request a "waste of taxpayer money" and a "blatant misuse of Montanans' hard-earned money."

"To require taxpayers to pay for information that is sought after only to sell newspapers should not be an acceptable practice in Montana," Miller said this week in a Republican Party Internet newsletter.

Lee Newspapers of Montana and The Associated Press in March requested e-mails of six officials in the governor's office, including Gov. Judy Martz and Lt. Gov. Karl Ohs. The news organizations limited their request to messages containing certain key words.

John Sullivan, a Helena attorney the administration hired to handle the request, provided more than 3,000 e-mail messages on May 24.

Martz's office estimated the cost at $24,000 for Sullivan's firm to review the e-mails and determine what information should be withheld because of privacy concerns. Four aides in the governor's office and an attorney in the Department of Administration spent another $4,038 in staff time reviewing the documents, the administration said.

John Kuglin, Montana bureau chief for The Associated Press, said Thursday that the governor's office volunteered to foot the bill.

"We pointed out there's no provision in state law to charge citizens for these types of internal reviews and that this would be on their dime," he said. "The governor's office said that was fine.

"State officials have a constitutional duty and statutory obligation to provide public records to citizens," Kuglin said. "Whether they should have spent $28,000, largely for lawyers to do this review, was up to them really."

Charles Johnson, bureau chief of Lee Newspapers of Montana, agreed. "They said these were costs they were willing to absorb," he said.

E-mail should be as available to the public as conventional paper mail sent to and from Montana governors and state agencies for years, he said.

"We live in an era when e-mail is probably being used as much as conventional mail and that will only increase in the future," he said. "I think state government has to figure out a way to make e-mail as readily available to the public as conventional mail."

Barbara Ranf, Martz's chief of staff, declined to endorse Miller's description of the e-mail costs as a waste of taxpayer money. But, she added, "it's really unfortunate that the taxpayers have to pay the cost of this.

"I'm not sure that's what was envisioned when they passed recent statutes on electronic information," she said, referring to a 2001 law making e-mails public records.

Ranf said the process the governor's office used to screen the requested e-mails was the only means available.

"There was no other way to balance the rights in this case," she said. "I'm not trying to disregard anyone's right to the information or anyone's privacy, but we have to find a balance.

"In this electronic age, we have to, as a government, find that balance of keeping government open and at the same time not burden taxpayers with additional costs," she said.

Asked if she considered the news media's request improper, Ranf called it "overly broad" and said a more limited request would have saved time and money.

"The 2001 Legislature made e-mail a public record just like letters written to state agencies," Kuglin said. "So the public is not out of line - and the public includes the press - in asking for public records."

He said the two news organizations agreed to pay the initial $400 cost of retrieving the e-mails stored on computer tapes, as required by state law.

Copyright © 2002 Associated Press.


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