Though we can and often do point out numerous problems with government transparency in Montana, we want to take the opportunity this Sunshine Week to focus on one: secret settlements with public employees.
Legislative auditors recently reported a sharp spike in settlements paid to terminated state workers. They found that the state has paid $1.1 million in settlements over the past six budget years and more than $336,000 this year alone, and there are probably additional payouts they haven't yet identified.
But the details of most of those settlements have been withheld from the people of Montana who are footing the bill. The information is kept secret even though state law requires public access to “all terms, conditions, and details of the government portion of a compromise or settlement agreement,” and the Montana Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that the public has a right to know about the settlements its government makes.
Montana’s Department of Risk Management and Tort Defense Division reported 15 employment-related settlements between budget years 2013 and 2016 but did not disclose the amount paid.
In 2016, the state denied the Bozeman Daily Chronicle’s public records requests for details of payments issued by the departments of Justice, Revenue, Natural Resources and Conservation, Transportation, Public Health and Human Services, and Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
We were able to get one settlement agreement from the state in 2017, but only after we hired a lawyer who threatened to sue for withholding public information.
As your local newspaper, we embrace our watchdog role and are fortunate to have the resources to shine a light on some of the dark areas of our government. But it would cost a fortune to enforce the public’s right to know every time a public employee is paid to leave, and government officials know it.
March 11-17 is recognized as Sunshine Week, a national initiative intended to celebrate open government and freedom of information and bring attention to anything that threatens that.
And we hope the recent news coverage of government settlements in Montana will inspire state lawmakers to address the problem during the 2019 Legislative Session.
Despite Montana’s laws about settlements, record-keepers at all levels of government continue to argue that the privacy of those receiving payouts outweighs the public’s right to know.
We hope to see legislation that states unequivocally that every government settlement, just like every government salary, is a public record regardless of the circumstances. Anyone who accepts taxpayer money as part of a government settlement should not be able to keep that private, and any government that refuses to provide the information should be penalized.
The people of Montana deserve to know how their money is being spent.
This is the opinion of the Independent Record editorial board.