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The Boulder Monitor v. Jefferson High School District No. 1

Supreme Court of Montana

January 9, 2014

THE BOULDER MONITOR, Plaintiff and Appellee,
v.
JEFFERSON HIGH SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 1, Defendant and Appellant.

Submitted on Briefs: November 20, 2013

APPEAL FROM: District Court of the Fifth Judicial District, In and For the County of Jefferson, Cause No. DV-2012-52 Honorable Loren Tucker, Presiding Judge.

For Appellant: David C. Dalthorp, Gough, Shanahan, Johnson & Waterman, PLLP, Helena, Montana

For Appellee: David K. W. Wilson, Jr., Morrison, Sherwood, Wilson & Deola PLLP, Helena, Montana

OPINION

Mike McGrath Chief Justice

¶1 The Jefferson High School District No. 1 (the District) appeals from the District Court's Order filed March 27, 2013, granting summary judgment to the Boulder Monitor (Monitor). We reverse.

PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND

¶2 The Jefferson County High School Board established a budget subcommittee, composed of three members of the full Board. The subcommittee's task was to consider budget issues and to report recommendations to the full Board. The Board met in a regular meeting on July 10, 2012, and discussed a number of issues, including several personnel positions. The Board reviewed four applicants for a principal position, and asked the budget subcommittee to meet on July 13, 2012 "to see if there is any significant savings that could be identified" regarding the salary for the position.

¶3 In addition to the discussion at the July 10 Board meeting as noted in the minutes of that meeting, the Board gave public notice of the July 13, 2012 meeting of the subcommittee. The notice indicated that the subcommittee would discuss the 2012-2013 school district budget, and noted that: "No decisions are made by a subcommittee of the Jefferson High School Board of Trustees unless authorized by action of a majority of the membership of the board in a regular meeting."

¶4 The Boulder Monitor is a weekly newspaper covering Jefferson County and its county seat, Boulder. The Monitor, and more specifically its publisher Jan Anderson, claims that its policy is to attend each meeting of the full School Board and that it has done so for several years. The Monitor was aware of the context of the budget subcommittee meeting, having attended the July 10 regular meeting of the full Board. The Monitor admits that it knew about the notice of the July 13 subcommittee meeting but decided not to send a reporter to cover it because it was not noticed as a meeting of the full School Board.

¶5 Pursuant to the discussion and directive at the regular Board meeting July 10, the three designated members of the subcommittee met on July 13. A fourth member of the School Board who was not a designated member of the budget subcommittee checked to insure that three Board members were present to participate. Her affidavit indicated that she was concerned that one of the subcommittee members had recent surgery and might not be able to attend. All three subcommittee members attended, so the fourth School Board member sat in the audience to observe the discussions about the 2012-2013 budget. The subcommittee discussed the salary level to allocate to a principal position and to a part-time athletic director position. The fourth Board member asked some questions during the discussion. The budget subcommittee, by consensus of its three members, decided to recommend to the School Board a salary of $55, 000 for the principal position and a salary of $10, 000 for the part-time athletic director position. After the subcommittee set the salary levels, there was a discussion of whether or not full benefits would also need to be paid. The school superintendent was present, and he opined that two of the four applicants for the open principal position would likely not be interested at the salary level recommended by the subcommittee.

¶6 One of the subcommittee members took notes of the discussion and intended to send her notes to the full School Board as a report of the subcommittee's recommendations. She sent a draft of her notes of the meeting to each person who attended, including the fourth board member. The fourth Board member sent back some suggested revisions. The full School Board considered and acted upon the subcommittee's recommendations at its next regular meeting.

¶7 Jan Anderson attended the next scheduled meeting of the full School Board. She determined, based upon what she heard there and upon the notes of the budget subcommittee meeting, that the subcommittee meeting had actually been a meeting of the full School Board. Anderson concluded that the presence of the fourth board member meant that a quorum of the School Board had met. Anderson further determined that the subcommittee had done more than discuss the 2012-2013 budget, and had acted in some way to eliminate two of the candidates for the principal position. Anderson determined that the notice of the subcommittee meeting had not disclosed that it would be a meeting of the full School Board and that the notice had not disclosed that the subcommittee would take action to reduce the number of candidates from four to two.

¶8 The Monitor sued the District contending that the meeting of the budget subcommittee violated the open meeting and public participation requirements of Montana law, Title 2, chapter 3, MCA. The complaint alleged that there was a quorum of the School Board present at the subcommittee meeting on July 13; that the meeting discussed "personnel matters" in addition to the 2012-2013 budget; that all four Board members present participated in the discussion; and that the public notice of the subcommittee meeting was inadequate. The complaint requested a declaration that the Board had violated the open meeting and public participation requirements of Montana law; requested that if any decision was made at the July 13 meeting, it be voided; and requested an injunction against the School Board's conducting any other official business until its members completed a course in the open meeting and public participation requirements of Montana law. The Monitor also requested that the School District be ordered to pay its attorney fees.

¶9 The parties conducted limited discovery and both sides filed motions for summary judgment. The District Court entered an Order filed March 27, 2013, granting summary judgment to the Monitor and awarding it attorney fees as the prevailing party. The District Court granted summary judgment to the Monitor based upon its determination that the "critical facts are undisputed." The critical facts noted in the District Court's Order were that a quorum of the School Board convened at the budget subcommittee meeting on July 13, 2012; that the members present at that meeting heard and discussed school business; that the members present "discussed at least four applications for an administrative position"; that the members present acted to reduce the "roster of several candidates" for the principal position; that the fourth School Board member was "clearly involved in the conduct of the school business"; and that the School Board failed to give notice that these actions would be taken.

ΒΆ10 The District Court, based upon its conclusion that these were undisputed facts, granted summary judgment to the Monitor. The only relief the District Court granted was a declaration that the School Board had violated the open meeting and public participation requirements of Montana law at the July 13, 2012 meeting, and a determination that the Monitor was entitled to attorney fees. The issue on appeal is whether the District Court properly granted summary judgment to the Monitor based upon the ...


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