HELENA – The Public Service Commission would open itself to possible litigation if it repeals a rule that requires disclosure of the compensation of utilities’ top three employees, an attorney representing the Montana Newspaper Association said Tuesday.
There is no constitutional right to privacy when it comes to salaries and compensation, and dropping the rule would wrongly shift the burden of disclosure away from the government agency, attorney Mike Meloy told commissioners.
He said there is no question that the salaries of public employees and utility employees are public, citing a previous state Supreme Court decision and a Montana attorney general’s opinion.
“If somebody sues you, you won’t have a basis for defending that,” Meloy said.
Last month, the commission sent notice that it plans to repeal the compensation disclosure rule, triggering a public comment period that ends Friday.
Meloy, a Helena attorney who works on freedom-of-information issues, was the only person to testify at Tuesday’s public hearing. Commissioner Travis Kavulla said more than 40 written comments also have been submitted.
Most support keeping the rule that says compensation of the three highest-paid, Montana-based utility employees cannot be treated as confidential information, he said.
But a majority of the five-member panel supports dropping the rule, saying it is poorly written, does nothing to make government better and should not apply to private companies.
Kavulla is the exception. He says utilities are different from other private companies because they are monopolies and their customers have no choice in where they receive their services.
Repealing the rule would help settle a pending lawsuit by Mountain Water Co., which provides water to the city of Missoula and surrounding areas. The company says the PSC rule violates the state constitution’s right-to-privacy provisions and exceeds the commission’s authority.
On Feb. 25, District Judge Mike Menahan halted proceedings for six months while the two sides work out a settlement that hinges on the PSC repealing the rule.
Commission Chairman Bill Gallagher said the PSC will respond to the comments and either hold a working session in late May or early June, or simply let the rule expire after the six-month notice period ends.