Montana local governments prepare for new law requiring recorded meetings

Rispens Owl Camera
Posted at 7:29 PM, Jul 04, 2024

EAST HELENA — Monday, July 1, was the effective date for a new state law that leaders say is intended to give the public a clearer picture of the work their local government is doing.

House Bill 890, sponsored by Rep. Brad Barker, R-Luther, requires many local government boards to record their meetings and post the recordings online within five business days. Now, it’s up to local leaders to make sure they’re following the law.

“It's been a little bit of a learning process and a learning curve, understanding how we're going to comply,” said Dan Rispens, superintendent of East Helena Public Schools.

Under HB 890, cities with more than 5,000 residents, counties with more than 4,500, most school districts with more than 1,000, and local health boards have to record the audio and video of their meetings. Smaller counties and cities with between 1,000 and 5,000 residents will only need to record audio.

Barker said when he was elected to the Legislature, one of his biggest concerns was a lack of trust in government, and he hoped steps like this would boost trust by providing transparency.

“The more that we put sunshine on the various things that we do – whether it's discussing and approving budgets, approving contracts, all of the things that are involved in our public boards and entities – I think that it improves not only the process, that transparency also helps the public have a better understanding,” he said.

Most leaders MTN spoke to said the new law isn’t forcing major changes to their policies. For example, the city of Helena has been posting its meetings to Youtube since 2021, and the Lewis and Clark County Commission started doing the same last month. Commissioners in Jefferson and Broadwater Counties said they got used to streaming their meetings online during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it wasn’t a big step for them to get ready to record them as well.

The East Helena school board has also been streaming its meetings online since COVID, but that’s now changing. Rispens said the district decided for now to stop broadcasting them live and focus on the required recording.

“We've got a few people in the district – I think maybe two – that completely understand how to operate the equipment and make sure that the recording gets put down properly and is ready for posting,” he said. “So until we're a little more comfortable with that process and we've got a few other folks who understand how to make sure it works, we just want to take it one step at a time.”

Rispens said it was difficult for the board and district staff to make sure that everyone had a full chance to participate equally in the hybrid meetings.

“You really need somebody full-time in the meeting who's operating that Zoom meeting and monitoring the folks who are participating on Zoom and ensuring that people's microphones are turned on at the appropriate time or turned off, and so it does become a little bit of a concern and a burden as to who's going to do that,” he said.

EHPS uses a small Owl Labs camera that spins 360 degrees in an attempt to follow whoever is speaking. While they most often hold board meetings at the East Valley Middle School library, Rispens said they’re also able to use the camera when they’re meeting in other places.

“The problem with it being mobile is it's not super high-quality video or audio production,” he said.

Regardless of the quality of the recordings, Barker says it’s important for the public to be able to get a clear, authoritative view of what happens in these meetings, as a way to push back against misinformation.

“With all the advances that we've had in technology and more recently at a much more rapid pace – artificial intelligence, the ability to create digital fraud, deepfakes – I think it's important that we start as a government to take steps toward safeguarding,” he said.

During the 2023 legislative session, Barker also sponsored House Bill 724, which required local government boards to publish their agendas before meetings. That law took effect last year.