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Judge Rejects Lawsuit Over Districting Commission
District judgeruled that Districting and Apportionment Commission didn't break any open meeting laws
HELENA — A state judge on Friday rejected arguments that Montana's legislative districting commission wrongly met in private earlier this year to assign senators.

District Judge Mike Menahan ruled that the Districting and Apportionment Commission didn't break any open meeting laws. He said any decisions involving a quorum of commission members was open as a public meeting and allowed for public comment.

The judge also said the lawsuit wasn't filed within 30 days of the alleged transgression, as required.

Some residents in a district that covers Lewistown and other nearby towns are upset at the way the commission assigned them a Democratic holdover senator from another area.

They filed a lawsuit this summer, arguing that the decision wasn't specifically noticed as a topic of the Districting and Apportionment Commission's final meeting.

The commission meets every 10 years to draw new districts of roughly equal population based on updated census information. The panel was split between two Republicans and two Democrats who sparred for the tie-breaking vote of a former Montana Supreme Court justice.

The final assignment of senators to the new districts in February ensured a Republican senator, known for bipartisanship, will be able to run in 2014 in a new district where he lives. The original assignment of holdovers left Sen. Llew Jones, of Conrad, without a district.

But the move also shifted some term-limited senators, who will not be running again, into new seats that will have less familiar territory, including the district around Lewistown.

The lawsuit argued that commissioners made the decision by huddling in a series of small, one-on-one private meetings that led to the ultimate decision and should have been made public.

Menahan, a former state legislator, said the only binding decisions were taken in a public vote by a majority of the five members in a public meeting.

"Two commission members, in person, by telephone or other electronic means, discussing redistricting are not conducting a meeting," Menahan said. "The record indicates the commission members communicated with each other outside their formal meetings, but only made their final decisions at public meetings after first considering public comment."

An appeal to the Montana Supreme Court is expected.
 
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