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Friday, November 4, 2011

Court rules on revealing pensioners’ salaries

The public’s right to know trumps the privacy rights of the top 500 state pension earners, and now their names and salary amounts must be disclosed, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The Union Leader of New Hampshire sued the N.H. Retirement System for access to the names under the state’s Right-to-Know Law.

In a unanimous decision, the state’s highest court found the need for public transparency outweighed concerns over personal privacy of the government retirees.

“We have determined that retirees have a privacy interest in their names and benefit amounts, but that interest is comparable to public employees’ privacy interest in their names and salaries, “ wrote Associate Justice Gary Hicks for a unanimous court.

“The public has an interest both in knowing how public funds are spent and in uncovering corruption and error in the administration of NHRS.”

The NHRS opted not to exercise its option to ask the court to reconsider its decision.

“NHRS will comply with the court’s decision,” said a statement from the agency Thursday.

In the statement, system officials maintained they were asserting the privacy rights of the 27,000 government retirees.

“NHRS has an obligation to protect the privacy of retirees, as appropriate,” the statement said.

“The retirement system appealed the lower court ruling on the basis that the right-to-know law (RSA 91:A) was vague regarding whether pension annuities were public information.”

In February 2010, a reporter for the Manchester newspaper asked for a “[a] list of names of the 500 state retirement system members who received the highest annual pension payments from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 2009 and the amounts of those pensions.

The retirement system turned down the request but it offered to give the list of the pension amounts without disclosing the names.

The lawsuit resulted and Thursday’s decision upheld a Superior Court judge’s decision that found in favor of the newspaper and public disclosure.

“In light of these conclusions, our prior decisions compel the result: Having held that a privacy interest on par with that at issue here was outweighed by the public interest in knowing ‘where and how their tax dollars are spent,’ we similarly conclude that the disclosure of the information sought here would not constitute an invasion of privacy...,” Hicks concluded in the Supreme Court decision.

David Lang is president of the Professional Association of NH Fire Fighters who has waged a long battle over access to records of the Local Government Center which is the umbrella arm of the New Hampshire Municipal Association, which represents cities and towns.

In a related decision, the Supreme Court ordered the LGC to disclose the names and salary amounts paid to all its employees.

The court’s decision Thursday cited the Professional Fire Fighters case.

“The transparency part of me says this is a great decision for openness, “ Lang said. “The union member part of me says we now have to realize that even though they are separated from public service, this defines retirees as public employees under the Right to Know Law.

“Clearly that has some ramifications going forward. I’m sure not surprised by the decision in light of the court’s ruling in our case.”

The legal arguments revolved around a 1997 state law that made pension buyout amounts public information. The case stemmed from a $125,000 payment made to a Hampton town official’s agreement to leave his job.

Retirement system lawyers maintained this state law only applied to lump-sum severance or separation pay and was not intended to make all compensation of retirees public.

The justices agreed the law was narrowly written but that the balancing test favored future disclosure over privacy.

Kevin Landrigan can reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashuatelegraph.com; also check out Kevin Landrigan (@KLandrigan) on Twitter and don’t forget The Telegraph’s new, interactive live feed at www.nashuatelegraph.com/topics/livefeed.