KATIE OYAN Associated Press Writer HELENA (AP)
Gov. Brian Schweitzer is once again intervening in a "right to know" matter involving the board that oversees the Montana public employees retirement system. This time, the dispute involves a police officers' group. The Montana Police Protective Association, representing nearly 600 active police officers (including those in Havre), filed a lawsuit against the state Public Employees Retirement Board on Nov. 1, after the board refused to release financial information on a police officer retirement fund. In a letter Wednesday, Schweitzer asked the board to "seek to resolve this dispute expeditiously," and to keep him apprised. The MPPA is seeking the financial information so its own expert can look at how a deferred-retirement program is affecting the state retirement fund for about 1,200 retired and active police officers. The deferredretirement program was created to encourage veteran police officers to keep working rather than retiring after 20 years. Officers who continue to work can still begin drawing retirement money, but it goes into a deferred account and is paid out in a lump sum when they retire. Those who continue working must keep paying 9 percent of their salary into the retirement fund for all officers, but their retirement pay is frozen at the 20-year level. Tim Hawkins, president of the police association, has said officers are questioning why they should keep paying into the fund when they don't see increased benefits. Last year, a consultant hired by the retirement board said the deferred-retirement program was harming the financial health of the police retirement fund. The board said it would oppose any changes in the required payments. The police group then asked for data on the fund's retirees so it could do its own analysis, but the retirement board voted 4-1 to withhold it, saying the release would violate privacy rights of people covered by the retirement fund. In his letter to the board, Schweitzer said it's not always easy to balance Montana's constitutional right to know against its constitutionAl right to privacy. "However, the lawsuit raises the obvious question of how the public, or in this case MPPA and the members and beneficiaries of the retirement program, can test the actuaries' conclusions about the program without having access to the underlying data and information available to PERB's actuaries," he wrote. Schweitzer said the police association offered a "pragmatic resolution," when it said it was willing to work with the board to get a court order that would limit disclosure of private information to the group's actuarial consultant. "I ask you to please explain to me how disclosure of this information with a protective order preventing its further dissemination could constitute a violation of any member's or beneficiary's privacy rights," Schweitzer wrote. Scott Miller, legal counsel for the retirement board, said board members rejected the protective order idea at a September meeting, after determining the privacy interests in the case outweigh the merits of public disclosure. For instance, Miller said, an actuary would need the dates of birth of police group members and their beneficiaries to complete the analysis. The board's concern was that providing such details would be enough to identify particular members and their benefits, he said. "From the board's perspective, the underlying financial information is confidential," Miller said. "And even with a protective order, the board didn't feel it would be relieved of that burden." Miller added that the board has invited the police group to obtain release forms from its members, waiving their confidentiality rights. Hawkins was out of town Thursday and did not return a call seeking comment. But Steve Bullock, a Helena attorney representing MPPA, said the association wouldn't even know who to send release forms to without first getting the information it needs from the retirement board. He added that the data the group is seeking is basic demographic information not identifying information such as names or hometowns and that withholding it doesn't outweigh the public's right to know. Bullock said the association was not aware of Schweitzer's letter but agrees "that ideally this will be resolved expeditiously." This isn't the first time the governor has butted heads with the retirement board over the public's right to know. Schweitzer sued the board in November 2005, alleging members had held illegal closed-door meetings when they hired a former board president, Terry Teichrow, as the system's executive director. The board later voided Teichrow's job offer and launched another search, eventually hiring Roxanne Minnehan. Teichrow, who was not a finalist in the second search, filed a grievance over the loss of the job.