A town hall in Sidney — or not?

‘When it says town hall meeting, the perception is that’s an open meeting’

By: - September 30, 2021 5:25 pm

Mark Berryman and Gov. Greg Gianforte pose for a photo together in Richland County this week. (Courtesy Mark Berryman/The Sidney Herald)

Gov. Greg Gianforte’s tour of Montana’s 56 counties — often the only open opportunity for the public or press to ask questions of the governor — took him to Richland County this week, but not before his office requested that the editor of a local newspaper remove a Facebook post notifying the public of a town hall Gianforte was hosting in Sidney, according to a phone call with the editor Thursday and an earlier social media post from the newspaper.

Sidney Herald editor Mark Berryman, who took the helm of the paper in February, told the Daily Montanan that he received an email notice from the Governor’s Office this week that Gianforte would be visiting a meatpacking plant and meeting with business owners in Sidney and then hosting a town hall on Sept. 28. Similar notices are sent to reporters across the state when the governor makes a public appearance.

“I’ll be honest — normally, I don’t bother posting those things,” he said. “But when it says town hall meeting, the perception is that’s an open meeting, and that’s mine as well, so I published that.”

But the next morning, a representative from the Governor’s Office asked that he take the post down, Berryman said. Eventually, he complied, but he let Herald readers on Facebook know what happened.

“On Tuesday morning a representative from Gov. Gianforte’s office called and said the schedule was for information purposes only and for security reasons asked us to remove the post,” reads a post from the paper’s Facebook account. “They were quite insistent.”

Berryman said the Governor’s Office told him the town hall was not in fact open to the public, but that they’d invited specific stakeholders to discuss specific issues.

A spokesperson for the Governor’s Office did not return a request for comment from the Daily Montanan on Thursday.

“When asked how the governor could hold a ‘town hall’ meeting without informing the public, the representative said his office had contacted a lot of business owners and others to let them know about the event,” the Facebook post reads.

When the town hall eventually rolled around, members of the public who weren’t on the invite list indeed showed up, and as it turned out, the event was open to them. Gianforte, Berryman said, was courteous, delivering an opening remark and making time to answer questions from the public and media.

“I don’t feel like they were necessarily trying to deceive the people,” Berryman said. “I believe they were trying to use the term town hall to make it sound different than it was.”

His followup Facebook post ruffled some feathers among local conservative readers who accused him of bias, he said. So, figuring he had been a little negative in the post, he also requested a photo with the governor and posted it to the paper’s page.

“I took the picture of me with them just to mess with their heads,” he said. “His office, they were very polite and very kind and very professional. We just agreed to disagree on what a town hall is.” 

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Arren Kimbel-Sannit
Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Arren Kimbel-Sannit is an Arizona-bred journalist who has covered politics, policy and power building at every level of government. Before getting his dose of northern exposure, Arren worked as a reporter in all manner of Arizona newsrooms, for the Dallas Morning News and for POLITICO in Washington, D.C. He has a special interest in how land-use decisions affect working-class people, which he displayed through reporting on the epidemic of pedestrian deaths in the U.S. for the Los Angeles Times and PBS Newshour. He's also covered housing, agriculture, the Trump presidency and more.