Pension secrecy

One of the things that distinguishes public employment from the private sector: The public is your boss, and your boss is entitled to know how much you’re paid.

But to hear the Public Employees’ Retirement System tell it, that oversight ends the instant a public employee retires, notwithstanding the fact that the public is still responsible for the pension benefits of retirees. PERS flatly refused a records request from the Reno Gazette-Journal for the name, employer’s name, final salary, hire and retirement dates and pension benefit for each of the state’s 47,000 retirees.

PERS said the information was stored only in “individual files,” which state law says are not subject to disclosure under the state’s public records law. And even if they were, PERS actually added, the privacy interest of retirees outweighs the public interest in disclosure.

But those risible contentions fail under the lightest scrutiny. The statutes cited by PERS (passed in 1977, when records were kept in paper files) appear designed to limit physical access to records and never declare individual files or the information contained in them to be “confidential,” as required under the law to justify withholding information. Moreover, it’s utterly absurd to conclude that the name, employer, salary, and hire date of a public employee is public information on the last Friday before he retires, but suddenly becomes confidential the following Monday, once it’s entered into an “individual file” in the PERS system.

That’s why a Carson City District Court judge ruled against PERS more than a year ago, and why justices of the Nevada Supreme Court were skeptical Tuesday during the agency’s arguments for a reversal of that decision. If PERS sends out checks every month to active retirees using its computer database, how is it that a query could not be written to obtain only the information the Gazette-Journal seeks?

PERS also asserts that retirees may be subjected to crime if their names and pension payment amounts are made public, and that they are more vulnerable than current working people to scams and fraud. Not only is that a debatable presumption, it’s nowhere near compelling enough to deny the public basic information about people whose retirements the public has funded. (The newspaper is not seeking information of greater use to identity thieves, such as addresses, dates of birth, Social Security numbers or the like.)

PERS has billions of dollars worth of unfunded liabilities. Taxpayers must cover those liabilities, but they can’t learn how much retirees collect?

Each person who chooses to work for a government knows that transparency and scrutiny of one’s pay and performance are part of the deal. PERS should not, through creative structuring of information in individual computer or paper files, be able to thwart that well-founded presumption. The Supreme Court should uphold the District Court’s ruling and demand PERS comply with the Gazette-Journal’s request.

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