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HELENA — A state district judge in Helena has ordered the state to provide a Bozeman-based think tank the salary data for 14,000 state employees in an electronic format.

District Judge Dorothy McCarter ruled Friday in favor of the Montana Policy Institute and against the state Department of Administration. She also ordered the state to pay the institute’s costs and attorney fees.

The Montana Policy Institute, which advocates for free-market economic policies, had been trying to obtain the pay data from the state since the summer of 2010.

Its lawyer, Art Wittich — a Republican state senator from Bozeman — said he and institute officials are “extremely pleased” with the decision.

“As Judge McCarter stated, the state should not have been quibbling over releasing this public information,” Wittich said. “We now look forward to begin analyzing the salary information and making it available to Montanans.”

Sheryl Olson, deputy director of the Department of Administration, said agency officials are reviewing the decisions and had no immediate comment on it.

The institute had asked for the total annual compensation for each state government employee, in electronic format, but the department would provide only the employees’ hourly wage rates.

The institute wants each state government employee’s yearly base pay and that number broken down into: base pay, overtime or compensatory time pay, other salary, bonus pay, buy-out or early retirement and other compensation, including reimbursements and travel and anything else.

Olson initially denied the request, saying the current computerized payroll system isn’t set up to create customized reports.

Department officials said it would cost $723 for about 30 hours of computer programming to produce the data in the format sought by the institute. The institute said it was willing to pay that fee.

The department’s refusal to comply with the Montana Policy Institute’s request, despite its willingness to pay the added costs, led the think tank to seek a court-ordered release of the salary data in electronic format.

In her decision, McCarter noted that the Montana Supreme Court has interpreted the public’s right to know broadly, “stressing that all citizens have an absolute right to observe and examine the operation of agencies of government and that this right is limited only by the constitutional right to privacy.”

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“Montana’s statutory and constitutional rights to public records embody the state’s strong commitment to access public records,” McCarter wrote. “These laws should therefore be literally construed to effect that commitment.

“Moreover, it makes little sense to maintain computer systems that have large capacities for storage of information and the capability to produce that information quickly, while quibbling about the physical format of the information requested rather than the intent of the right to know.”

She concluded that the “most liberal application of the public’s right to know” applies to the state of Montana and required the Department of Administration to provide the information sought by the Montana Policy Institute.

“Although it may be argued that in some cases that information requested by a member of the public in a particular format is too burdensome for the agency in time and money to be reasonable, the court does not believe (the) Policy Institute’s request is that oppressive, particularly since Policy Institute is willing to pay for the cost of production,” the judge wrote.

Wittich said he won’t have his total attorney fees and costs assembled until the end of the week.

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