Public employee pensions are a hot topic these days, as governments and their taxpayers struggle to keep up with the skyrocketing cost. To understand the growth in pension spending, and detect abuses, the public and press need to know the names of retirees and the amount of their pensions. This information was routinely released upon request in the past, but thanks to some legally dubious decisions by New York City pension funds and state courts, no longer is. The state Assembly is trying to clarify that public employee pension data is subject to public disclosure, but is getting no help from the Senate.
New York state’s Freedom of Information Act has no exemption for these public records. But in 2010, at the urging of the police union, New York City’s police retirement fund started withholding them from the fiscally conservative watchdog group Empire Center for New York State Policy. The Empire Center runs an important, widely used website called SeeThroughNY, which makes pension and other data, including the salaries of teachers and state and municipal employees, easily available to the public and press.
The police retirement fund based its denial on an erroneous reading of the Public Officers Law and its intent. The law says that while the “address” of retirees can be withheld from public disclosure, both the “address and name” of beneficiaries can. It clearly distinguishes between the two groups, giving the person designated to receive retirement benefits following the death of the retiree more privacy protection than the retiree. But the police retirement fund acted as if there were no difference, withholding the names of retirees as well, and the lower court and appellate division made the same mistake and ruled in its favor.
Since then, four other New York City pension funds have been withholding pension information, along with the New York State Teachers’ Retirement Fund. Only the two funds administered by State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli — one for state and local employees, the other for police and firefighters outside New York City — have complied with the spirit and letter of the law.
While the Empire Center waits to see if the state Court of Appeals will hear its case (the court should), the Assembly has been trying to fix things. Last year it passed a bill that would have defined “beneficiary” and “retiree” in the Freedom of Information Act, making it perfectly clear that the Legislature’s intent was to allow for release of retirees’ names while protecting the identity of beneficiaries. The Senate also had a bill, but it never came to a floor vote. This year the Assembly has another bill, but none has even been introduced in the Senate. Don’t the senators think taxpayers have a right to know how billions of their dollars are being spent?