Montana governor releases text messages to public, refuses to recover texts of budget director

By: Jayme Fraser, Missoulian, August 27, 2017

When Gov. Steve Bullock attempted a final negotiation with Republicans to pass a bill funding infrastructure projects in the final days of the Legislature, he sent a text message.

“Speaker, Bullock here. You have some time this am to talk?” the Democrat tapped into his phone at 9:17 a.m. on Monday, April 24.

At 8:43 a.m. that Friday, Speaker of the House Austin Knudsen sent a text back.

“Mr. Governor- we are not accepting your deal,” he wrote.

Conversations and decisions about state policy increasingly are conducted by texts zinging between the governor, legislators, lobbyists and staff. But state policies do not provide specific guidance on how to manage and maintain text messages as records that state law requires to be preserved.

In numerous interviews this year, many elected officials expressed skepticism about whether text messages — and other digital communications like emails and Facebook direct messages — should be public record and if it is worth the trouble to save them even temporarily for public inspection. Open government advocates argue elected leaders have a responsibility to modernize records-keeping strategies to remain transparent in a digital age.

“It strengthens the public’s right to access information,” Sunlight Foundation Executive Director John Wonderlich said. “That’s how we have trust in the government and how we ensure our elections are not just a beauty contest, but that they are about what’s actually happening.”

It is a debate sure to grow as leaders use the convenience of smart phones to communicate about public business and as more members of the public and media request access to digital messages under open government laws.

This year, the Legislature set aside $100,000 to defend Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, after she and the state were sued for failing to release some of her emails after more than a year had passed since being requested by the nonprofit Campaign for Accountability. Part of the debate centered on whether emails sent from her private account about state business must be released.

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