Gallatin County officials have spoken out against a local legislator's bill that would require public employees to foot the bill if they were sued for violating a constitutional right.

They weren't alone - 22 individuals and groups officially opposed Republican Sen. Art Wittich's bill at its initial hearing in Helena last week.

Wittich said the bill is now undergoing "dramatic" changes - but that may not be enough to appease the concerns of the Gallatin County Commission and the county attorney.

"The whole concept behind his bill is flawed," Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert said Thursday.

Officials expressed concern that the bill would deter people from running for office for fear of financial hardships that could come with paying for their own legal defense.

"That's the unintended consequence of something like this," Commissioner Steve White said. "It could bankrupt (public employees) just to prove they're innocent."

The original draft of Wittich's bill would have required employees to begin paying for their own defense as soon as a claim was brought against them. In that case, government employees could be forced to spend thousands of dollars to protect themselves from even the most frivolous claims, opponents of the bill argued.

But, Wittich, R-Bozeman, argued that a citizen also has to pay a big price to bring litigation against a public employee. They pay their own fees, and - as taxpayers - they help pay for the employee's defense.

"Throughout this loop, government officials never really pay a price," he said last week.

But if public employees were responsible for paying for their own legal defense, Wittich said, it would make them more careful about the decisions they make.

Among those testifying against the bill - which was heard by the Senate Local Government Committee - were representatives of the Montana Department of Corrections, the Montana League of Cities and Towns, the Montana County Attorney Association, the Montana Highway Patrol and the Montana School Boards Association.

Some pointed out that the bill would also apply to appointed board members - who are usually volunteers from within a community.

"That is way over the top," Lambert said Wednesday.

In a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Gallatin County commissioners expressed their dismay that legislators were specifically exempted from it.

"If this bill is needed and necessary to protect citizens from lawmakers and policy makers, then why is the Legislature exempt from it?" the letter said.

Wittich said that and other exemptions will likely be removed from the bill during the amendment process. He added that legislators already have immunity, so that line in his bill was a "simple restatement of the law."

The commissioners' letter also pointed out how the bill could negatively affect them. For example, if they were deciding on a gravel pit application and approved it, they could be subject to litigation from residents or environmental groups. If they denied it, they could by sued by the gravel company.

Either way, a work-related decision could lead them to litigation that they'd be required to finance.

Speaking in support of the bill last week were representatives from the Montana Shooting Sports Association, Lewis and Clark's Conservative Tea Party, the Order of Constitution Defenders, and several citizens.

Wittich said the bill will likely be amended so that public employees wouldn't have to pay for their defense until they were proven to have violated a constitutional right.

Wittich expects the committee to decide on the fate of Senate Bill 150 by early next week.

Carly Flandro can be reached at 582-2638 or cflandro@dailychronicle.com.

Support quality local journalism. Become a subscriber.

Subscribers get full, survey-free access to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle's award-winning coverage both on our website and in our e-edition, a digital replica of the print edition.