State legislature posts social calendars online

HELENA, Mont. (AP) -- The Montana Legislature is offering its constituents food for thought by posting its 2009 calendar of special interest group-sponsored brunches and mixers online for the first time.

The electronic posting of the Legislature's social calendar strengthens openness in government, said House Speaker Bob Bergren.

"We want to make sure this (legislative session) is a transparent process," Bergren said.

He said it's also better than a paper calendar for keeping the state's 150 legislators informed.

Other states, including New Mexico and Nevada, also put their legislatures' social calendars on the Web, but the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver was unsure how many do so.

At many of these events, lawmakers are offered free meals at the expense of special-interest groups. In Montana, the state Chamber of Commerce hosted last week's "Eggs and Issues," the Nature Conservancy offered lunch, and the abortion-rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America is planning a bistro reception this week.

"One of the concerns people have is who's talking to legislators, who's got their ear," said Lorne Malkiewich of the Legislative Counsel Bureau in Nevada, where the legislature's social calendar has been on the Web since 1999.

But he said the public easily could have gotten the information elsewhere, because "it's not like it's going to be a secret that a bunch of legislators are going to the library-and-archives foyer for a reception. Those things have been announced."

Still, government transparency advocates, such as the Washington-based Common Cause, applauded the gesture.

"Transparency around these events is a good thing because the public can see who's rubbing elbows with who and draw their own conclusions about potential conflicts of interest or things that may be perceived as political favor," said Common Cause spokeswoman Mary Boyle.

The public sometimes viewed lobbyists negatively, but the information they convey might be useful and there was no harm when they provided food, Bergren said.

"I would hope that for the price of a small meal, a legislator isn't going to be swayed," he said.

Members of the public sometimes are invited to private events deemed social gatherings, such as luncheons and receptions, but those are not subject to state requirements for public access, said legislative information officer Gayle Shirley.

Still, Montana Freedom of Information Hotline attorney Mike Meloy said that if a gathering was organized with the intent of discussing public business, "then the public should have the opportunity to observe those discussions."

The former state lawmaker, added, however, that the free food and drink "have been the practice since statehood, probably" and lack the power of influencing legislators as the public might believe.

"I think most legislators would tell you 'I'll eat their food and drink their scotch, but I'm not beholden in any way to this organization for doing so,'" he said.

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On the Net:

Montana Legislature: http://www.leg.mt.gov

(This version CORRECTS 'she' to 'he' in 8th graf reference to Lorne Malkiewich.)

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