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Sunshine Week: Getting Stonewalled by Representative Zolnikov and Legislative Services

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Apparently, it’s Sunshine Week, when newspapers across the country tout their efforts to gain access to public records, sometimes in passive aggressive editorials. While I have some concerns about the approach taken of late by the state media when it comes to public records (more on that later), I absolutely believe the public has the right to access the workings of government. It’s essential to public oversight and required by our Constitution.

And that’s why I am so disappointed in Billings Representative Daniel Zolnkikov and Montana Legislative Services, who have stonewalled me on a public records request I made back in January. Two months ago, on January 16, I made a request to Representative Zolnikov and Montana Legislative Services for all of his e-mails about the UBER bill he helped guide through the Legislature, because I was curious about who had influenced the legislation and how they had managed to not foresee the insurance problem that has kept UBER from running in the state. My request is posted below.

I received a phone call from Legislative Services on January 18, when I was informed that Representative Zolniknov had been contacted by Legislative Services and that my records request would be processed shortly, “within a few days.” I’m still waiting for that request to be honored, and my e-mails to Legislative Services and the Representative have not been responded to since February 18, when I asked for an e-mail copy of a “giant spreadsheet for me to review” because “The email grab was way bigger than anticipated.”

Since then, I have sent four e-mails to Legislative Services asking for access to this spreadsheet, and have not received the courtesy of a response. I reached out to Representative Zolnikov to ask for comment on the apparently stonewalling on this records request, but he has not responded to that e-mail request, just as he never responded to my e-mail request for the e-mails in the first place.

So, almost two months after being told that the e-mail records would be provided to me, I know that a “giant spreadsheet” of e-mails exist and that neither Legislative Services nor Representative Zolnikov will provide that information to me, despite repeated requests. I’m left to assume that either or both do not believe they have an obligation to turn private e-mails about public business over to a citizen despite the “presumption of openness” about those records.

One has to wonder just what’s in that massive collection of e-mails. Perhaps there is an explanation for why those who wrote and promoted the bill failed to see that insurance would present a problem for drivers who wasted their money on UBER inspections. Perhaps there’s some information about who influenced the legislation and how. Perhaps some member of the media can make a public records request for the spreadsheet of e-mails that was generated, because this citizen isn’t getting the information he asked for.

Representative Zolnikov sees and promotes himself as a champion of Montana’s constitution. Perhaps he should put those beliefs into practice and start abiding by its requirement that the public be allowed to see the workings of government.

My Initial Request

I am requesting the opportunity to inspect or obtain copies of public records that include e-mail correspondence received and sent by Representative Daniel Zolnikov between January 3, 2015- January 15, 2016 related to SB 396 from the 2015 legislative session. I request all e-mails from his [email protected] account as well as any and all private accounts used by the representative.

I request that the information be provided electronically. If there will be any fees for these records, please inform me if the cost will exceed $100. I request a waiver of fees, though, as the information I am requesting is not for any commercial purpose, but to inspect and report on the decision making behind the passage of the bill.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

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If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.

About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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  • Another example of “stonewalling”?

    “On Feb. 17, The Gazette filed requests with the governor’s office under the state’s public information laws concerning Bullock’s Feb. 10 flight to Billings. The request to the governor’s office was for all written and recorded conversations between Gov. Bullock and/or his staff with representatives of School District 2 and the Billings Golden K Kiwanis regarding the governor’s Feb. 10, 2016, appearance at Riverside School in Billings. The public documents request was a first step in attempting to determine whether the official trip was planned before the campaign fundraiser.

    The Gazette also requested information from the governor’s office about who was on the plane for the Feb. 10 flight. The Gazette also requested information about the governor’s Feb. 16 trip to Missoula. Also, The Gazette requested the governor’s schedule, which is not available to the public without a request.

    The requests to the governor’s office have not yet been fulfilled.”-Gazette.

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