Bullock favors transparency in benefits issue

Jessica M. Karmasek Sep. 22, 2011, 1:43pm


HELENA, Mont. (Legal Newsline) - Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock last week held that the public has a right to know how much they are paying state employees in retirement benefits.

Bullock, in his Sept. 16 opinion, wrote, "Retirees of the Teachers' Retirement System of the State of Montana do not have individual rights of privacy in the amounts of their retirement benefits that clearly exceed the public's right to know."

In his seven-page letter to Denise Pizzini, chief legal counsel for the Teachers' Retirement System, the attorney general said the question requires the balancing of two rights: the right of individual privacy and the right of the public to know and understand the workings of its government.

"While TRS members may have had an expectation of privacy, that expectation is only constitutionally protected if society recognizes it as reasonable. Whether society would recognize TRS members' expectation of privacy in their publicly funded retirement benefits is a more difficult question," Bullock wrote.

"However, it is not necessary to reach that issue today, because I conclude that even if TRS members had constitutionally protected rights to privacy, when balanced against the public's right to know, those rights to privacy do not 'clearly exceed the merits of public disclosure.'"

TRS officials asked Bullock for his opinion in October. They wanted to know whether they could release the names of the top 10 people and the benefit amounts they are receiving.

Montana Watchdog made the request for the names and amounts, saying it was following up on another story.

Bullock noted that it is "well established" through previous opinions that public employees' names, addresses, salary, job titles, merit pay, vacation and sick leave, dates of employment and hours worked may be subject to public disclosure.

"Such information helps the public to understand how the state is using its tax dollars and what budget priorities the state has set for those dollars. Accordingly, such information is crucial to fostering the public's trust in government," he wrote.

"The present situation, involving retirees' names and retirement benefits, admittedly is somewhat different. However, it is not so different as to tip the scales to conclude that the retirees' rights to privacy now 'clearly exceed' the public's right to know."

TRS Executive Director Dave Senn told Watchdog that his board would decide at a meeting later this month if it wanted to appeal the attorney general's decision.

Senn, who noted that Bullock made a similar ruling in May, fears that making such information public could leave employees open to scams.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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