CARSON CITY — The Nevada Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a lower court ruling that found information about public employee retirees sought by the Reno Gazette-Journal is public information.
In a unanimous decision written by Justice Ron Parraguirre, the court said concerns raised by the attorney for the Public Employees Retirement System about the potential for identity theft were hypothetical and speculative.
The lower court did not abuse its discretion in ordering PERS to provide the requested information to the extent that it is maintained in a medium separate from individuals’ files, he said in the decision.
“Therefore, because the government’s interests in nondisclosure in this instance do not clearly outweigh the public’s presumed right to access, we conclude that the district court did not err in balancing the interests involved in favor of disclosure,” Parraguirre wrote in the decision.
The decision does reverse, however, a part of the lower court ruling that required PERS to create a new document or customize existing reports to provide the information sought by the newspaper. There is no duty in the state public records law requiring an agency to create a new document, the ruling states.
Barry Smith, executive director of the Nevada Press Association, called it a good ruling because it upholds the fundamental premise of Nevada’s open records law.
“The information sought by the Reno newspaper is public information,” he said. “It’s still unclear, however, how the Gazette-Journal is supposed to get a copy of that information as long as PERS claims it doesn’t have a list of the people it pays, how much they are paid or where they worked.”
There was no immediate comment on the ruling from the Gazette-Journal or PERS officials, who indicated they were still in the process of reviewing the decision.
Steven Miller, vice president for policy for the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a conservative think tank based in Las Vegas, welcomed the ruling as a “victory for public accountability.” But he predicted the fight to obtain the pension records and bring transparency to the PERS system won’t end anytime soon.
“That’s because the court also vacated a lower-court order telling PERS to create customized reports that compile information from individuals’ files or other records,” he said.
“Frequently, recalcitrant public agencies in Nevada still use die-in-the-last ditch tactics to obstruct public knowledge of how they’re actually using taxpayer money,” Miller said. “And, unfortunately, the PERS record suggests that the agency may well move to that level of resistance.”
The newspaper in 2011 submitted a public records request to PERS seeking the names of all individuals who are collecting pensions, the names of their government employers, their salaries, their hire and retirement dates, and the amounts of their pension payments. The request involved tens of thousands of public employee retirees.
PERS denied the request citing confidentiality and privacy concerns, and the newspaper took the case to Washoe District Court, where the court ruled that the information sought was public.
The lower court ordered PERS to run a customized report providing the information sought by the newspaper without releasing other information that was deemed to be confidential.
It is not clear yet how the newspaper will be able to acquire the information deemed public by the Supreme Court ruling, given its rejection of the requirement for a customized report.
Attorney Chris Wicker, representing the Nevada Public Employees Retirement System, told the court in oral arguments that the data on the 47,000 retirees, their monthly pension payments, their work history and other information is only kept in the individual files, which are confidential under state law.
Contact Capital Bureau reporter Sean Whaley at firstname.lastname@example.org or 775-687-3900. Follow him on Twitter @seanw801.