For the past two days, the newsroom has been talking about the lawsuit threatened by residents in the Bridger Creek subdivision, which is located next to the old city landfill.
The claimants — seven people so far — want the city to pay each of their four households around $3 million to compensate them for alleged losses due to the landfill gases seeping into their homes. The city has previously called the seeping gases, which come from the decomposing garbage, its “most important issue.”
RedactionsWe were first tipped off to the story Wednesday evening. It was then that KBZK reported on the claim notice filed by the Bridger Creek residents. The KBZK story did not name anyone involved — not the claimants, not the attorneys. It didn’t even name city attorney Greg Sullivan, instead mentioning him by title only.
Included with that story was a PDF copy of the claim notice. It was heavily redacted. All the names were removed, apart from the name of the Bozeman law firm: Moriarity, Badaruddin and Brooke.
I emailed a link to the story to city reporter Erin Schattauer that night and asked her to look into it first thing Thursday morning. Erin called the city but wasn’t able to quickly get a copy of the letter from them. So she did the next logical thing: She called one of the other agencies reported to have received the letter, in this case, Gallatin County.
Within an hour we had a copy of the letter from the county. It was complete and un-redacted.
Disappearing storyMeanwhile, the story and the PDF of the letter on KBZK’s website vanished. Links to the story from social media led to a file-not-found error message.
The story reappeared on KBZK sometime later Thursday, along with a new version of the PDF. It was still redacted, but it now sported a KBZK watermark.
Erin continued reporting her story. She called the law firm and spoke to attorney Edward Moriarity, who was also one of the claimants. He was upset that the paper had the un-redacted document, wondered several times where we got it and said he hoped Erin and her family never had “to go through anything like this.”
On Friday, the city held a press conference to state that it would respond to the notice within the 120-day time limit. There was no indication of what that response would be.
At the press conference, the city handed out copies of the claim notice letter. All names were redacted from it, and the city manager told Erin that the city had allowed the claimants to decide what information was blacked out.
Naming namesIf you clicked on the link above or read the front page of Friday’s paper, you know that the Chronicle named the claimants. Why did we name them when all the other local news outlets didn’t?
Well, I can’t say why they didn’t, but I can say why we did.
First, state law tells us that every citizen has the right to “inspect and take a copy of any public writings of this state” and that public officers are “bound to give the citizen on demand a certified copy of it.”
The only exemptions from this law are library records, burial site records, constitutionally protected information and records in which “an individual privacy interest” exceeds “the merits of public disclosure.” The law give the examples of trade secrets or matters related to safety.
There is no question that it was a public document; it became public the moment the city (and county, and state) received it.
The major factor here is the right to privacy. It’s a right granted by the state constitution. In fact, privacy is so important it’s granted before the right to bear arms and vote – though it’s granted after the “right to know.”
The public’s right know has to “clearly” exceed the individual’s right to privacy. And in the minds of the editors, there was no question that the public’s right to know exceeded any right to privacy.
These are people asking for a total of more than $12 million in public money. The merits of their case notwithstanding, that’s a lot of taxpayer money.
I don’t know how KBZK got the document in the first place — a leak from the claimants, diligent city records reporting or something else — but it was clearly to the advantage of the claimants to have their story put before the public’s eye without having to expose their identities.
Remember there is no lawsuit yet, only the threat of one. But merely having mention of that threat in the news puts pressure on the city to settle for considerable sums of money to avoid the expense of the lawsuit.
People seeking millions from the city without so much as exposing their names doesn’t sit right with me, and I think our other local news organizations should follow our lead and report the names.