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Futile court fight: PERS board should abide by judge’s ruling

Nevada taxpayers have seen their governments launch too many pointless appeals of losing court battles over the years.

Clark County has defended to the bitter end unconstitutional ordinances that limited free speech on the Strip. Time and again, the city of Las Vegas has fought to uphold unconstitutional ordinances that cracked down on protected expression and the right to assemble downtown. Elected officials have tried and failed to keep secret their emails and records of their taxpayer-provided cellphones. And on and on. In every case, taxpayers were hit with big legal costs after the government lost in predictable fashion.

On Wednesday, we’ll know whether one more public entity is willing to go to the mat — and stick the public with the bill — even though the law clearly isn’t on its side.

The board of the Public Employees’ Retirement System will decide whether to appeal to the Nevada Supreme Court or abide by a District Court decision that ruled the names, employers and pension benefits of retired government workers are public records.

The ruling, issued Dec. 22 by Carson City District Judge James Russell, panned PERS’ longtime practice of declaring such information confidential under a murkily worded statute that runs counter to the state’s public records law.

“Nowhere in NRS 286.110(3) is it stated that confidentiality applies to the names of retired employees collecting PERS benefits, or to the names of the employers of those retired employees … or the amounts of the pension benefits being paid to those retired employees,” Judge Russell wrote in ordering the release of the information to the Reno Gazette-Journal, which brought the case against PERS after its request for the data was denied. PERS was ordered to pay the newspaper’s attorney fees.

Judge Russell cited numerous cases in his ruling, tearing down PERS’ arguments with precedent. He pointed to Nevada’s public records law, which must “be construed liberally.” Case law also dictates that the government’s alleged privacy interests must outweigh the public’s right to full disclosure to keep information confidential; PERS, however, had “no privacy interests,” the judge ruled.

Finally, a California case found that state’s pension records — kept secret under a statute worded nearly the same as the Nevada law cited by PERS — to be public information.

These records are of vital public interest. PERS is underfunded. Taxpayers are on the hook for pension benefits that can’t be paid. They have a right to know how much money retirees are receiving so voters can judge whether those benefits should be reduced or eliminated. The only reason to deny them this information is to keep them in the dark about abuses and practices they’d consider unacceptable.

The PERS board should forgo any appeal and agree to follow Judge Russell’s ruling. PERS has wasted enough money fighting the public’s interests.

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