HELENA – A judge has ruled that the state must make available specific information on the employee salaries requested by a Bozeman-based think tank, despite claims it was not required to provide such information.
On Dec. 14, the Montana Policy Institute (MPI) asked state 1st Judicial District Court Judge Dorothy McCarter through a writ of mandamus to order the state, the Department of Administration (DOA) and DOA Director Janet Kelly to grant its public records request.
MPI made multiple requests to DOA officials dating back to August 2010 for “state employee actual compensation data,” according to an affidavit by Carl Graham, president of MPI, which publishes Montana Watchdog.
MPI was also granted attorneys’ fees and costs by McCarter in her Jan. 27 decision.
“The court concludes that the most liberal application of the public’s right to know applies to the state of Montana and requires the Department to provide the information requested by Policy Institute,” McCarter wrote.
She said Montana has a strong commitment to access to public records. “These laws should therefore be liberally construed to effect that commitment,” she wrote.
“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 laws,” she wrote.
“That’s a good win for us,” MPI attorney Art Wittich said. “I think it was the right decision. She was correct that the state was quibbling over what we saw was clearly public information. We’re looking forward to receiving the information, analyzing it” and informing the public. He said he would be working with state to get information transferred.
Mike Manion, the DOA’s chief legal counsel, said Jan. 30 he was reviewing the decision and could not offer comment.
Manion said at the Dec. 14 hearing the MPI request would involve 14,000 state employees including salary, hourly wage and overtime. Manion said even though the information was available and MPI was willing to pay the estimated $700-$800 to gather the data, right-to-know laws did not require the state to program the data to satisfy such requests.
He said there are 300 time-reporting codes for earnings that would have to be reprogrammed and the state of Montana did not have the staffing or time to fulfill the request. And he said once the information was provided at the state level, it would likely trickle down to the county and city levels as well, causing a “significant burden.”
Wittich, who is also a Republican state senator from Bozeman, disagreed.
He accused the DOA of playing a “cat and mouse game” with MPI. He said it was also a “weak argument” to say the public would be requesting the information and added it should be available to the public.
McCarter noted MPI requested the actual pay rate of state employees, including each employee’s actual yearly base pay as well as each employee’s actual yearly total pay broken down by (a) base, (b) overtime/comp.pay, (c) other salary, (d) bonus pay,” (e) buyout/early retirement and (f) other compensation including by not limited to reimbursement and travel.
To read the judge’s decision, go to: http://montana.watchdog.org/files/2012/01/Decision-and-Order.pdf.