Miles City Star Editorial
State and Prairie County officials toured the Scenic View Road near the Terry Badlands last week, in an attempt to resolve an access issue that has been brewing for more than a year.
We don't know what was discussed on the tour, because the media was not allowed past the gate marking a strip of private property that crosses Scenic View Road.
That's just plain wrong, and a blow to open government.
The gate was put up last year by landowner Michael Karrels. It prevents the public from reaching public lands adjoining his property, putting an end to decades of access and enjoyment of the scenic area.
This is the issue in question.
It was Karrels' attorney, Lance Tonn, who told a reporter Tuesday that she could not participate in the tour.
The tour group included Montana Assistant Attorney General Stuart Segrest, two interns from the AG's office, the Prairie County attorney, the Prairie County road supervisor, an outside attorney versed in access issues, Tonn and Karrels.
In addition to the media, Prairie County Commissioner Ann Marie Davis was excluded from the tour. Commissioners did meet with state officials earlier.
Before the tour began, the reporter asked the assistant AG if he was comfortable participating if the press was excluded. He replied, “I would prefer you to go, but it's not my decision.”
True, but we believe the assistant AG was wrong to participate in a closed tour, and so was the Prairie County attorney. They should have insisted that the tour be open, or declined to participate.
Article II, Section 8 of the Montana Constitution states:
“The public has the right to expect governmental agencies to afford such reasonable opportunity for citizen participation in the operation of the agencies prior to the final decision as may be provided by law.”
This is an issue of great public interest, involving public funding. The state officials traveled on state funds, using state time, to visit the site.
The road in question was built with county funds and has been maintained with county funds for decades. According to the outside attorney, court records indicate an easement existed on the main route.
A lawyer with the Freedom of Information hotline contends that it was a public meeting “because it involved an important question of public concern and there is no right of privacy involved [in the discussion].”
Why, then, should the media, and thereby the public, not be privy to that visit?
We strongly disagree with the landowner's stance, but he is allowed to decide who can enter his land. However, the question of an easement across it to use the public lands is not solely up to him.
In the process of working through this issue, we expected much more from state and county officials. They are there to represent the public, and keeping us in the dark and on the sidelines is unacceptable. They need to remember that in future dealings on Scenic View Road.
-Miles City Star
Published August 5, 2009
Scenic View Road