Editorial: Court should slap down public pension records trickery

There is contempt of court. There is contempt of Congress. But there should also be contempt of public.

This past week Nevada Policy Research Institute’s (NPRI) legal arm, Center for Justice and Constitutional Litigation (CJCL), filed suit in district court in Carson City seeking to force the state Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) to release information about the taxpayer-funded pensions of retired public employees.

After the Reno Gazette-Journal newspaper sued under the public records law in 2013 and won in the Nevada Supreme Court, this information was disclosed for 2013 and 2014 and posted on NPRI’s TransparentNevada.com website — names, former employer, years of employment, retirement year and pension amounts.

According to transparentnevada.com, in 2014 there were more than 1,000 Nevada state and local retirees receiving annual pensions in excess of $100,000. American Enterprise Institute found Nevada full-career PERS retirees fetch the most generous retirement checks of any state in the union — $64,000 a year on average or more than $1.3 million in lifetime benefits. That doesn’t include police and firefighters, who can retire earlier and generally have higher salaries.

But when NPRI filed a public records request for the same information this year for 2015, PERS had changed how it compiles the data. It replaced the names with Social Security numbers, making the data useless.

”By replacing names with ‘non-disclosable’ Social Security numbers in its actuarial record-keeping documents, PERS has attempted to circumvent the 2013 ruling of the Nevada Supreme Court requiring disclosure,” explained Joseph Becker, the director of CJCL.

After two years of disclosing the pension records, the bureaucrats at PERS apparently decided to nit pick a portion of that 2013 Supreme Court ruling that said, while public records must be disclosed, the agency has “no duty to create a new document by searching for and compiling information from existing records.” In order to circumvent the law, PERS altered its records.

But as Becker points out in his suit, there is a 2015 case out of the Nevada Supreme Court in which the court held that “when an agency has a computer program that can readily compile the requested information, the agency is not excused from its duty to produce and disclose that information.” LVMPD v. Blackjack

In an NPRI press release about the litigation, Becker is quoted as saying, “Not only has PERS attempted to re-engineer its record-keeping in a way that obscures from public view its critical financial instability — for which the taxpayers of Nevada are ultimately on the hook. PERS is also violating both the letter and spirit of the Nevada Public Records Act …”

The manipulation of the records by PERS is a clear act of contempt for the public, as well as the law and the courts.

The purpose of the public records law (NRS 239) is made abundantly clear by its opening paragraph: “The Legislature hereby finds and declares that:

“1. The purpose of this chapter is to foster democratic principles by providing members of the public with access to inspect and copy public books and records to the extent permitted by law;

“2. The provisions of this chapter must be construed liberally to carry out this important purpose;

“3. Any exemption, exception or balancing of interests which limits or restricts access to public books and records by members of the public must be construed narrowly …”

We urge the court to make short work of this naked effrontery.

A version of this editorial appears this past week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel,  Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.

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More crocodile tears from state workers in Carson City

About 50 people rallied outside the Legislature in Carson City Wednesday to demand pay raises and an end to unpaid furlough days, according to the Nevada Appeal. (Most of the story is behind a pay wall.)

The story quotes Shara Lynn Kern, a DMV worker for 13 years, as saying, “We have state employees who live in their cars, are on public assistance.”

Rally for more pay at the state Legislature. (Nevada Appeal photo)

Perhaps, but according to TransparentNevada.com there is a Sheralynn Kern, who works as a DMV Services Technician 3 and saw her base pay cut about $1,600 from 2011 to 2012. One can’t determine what happened to state workers’ total compensation, including benefits, because those weren’t reported to the Nevada Policy Research Institute, which maintains TransparentNevada.com, for the years 2008 to 2011.

By comparison, according to the Census Bureau, the median household income in Nevada has fallen 14 percent since 2008, when the recession kicked in.

Since 2008 this Kern’s base pay actually increased a couple hundred dollars, and, going back to 2007, when total compensation was last reported, her total compensation — what comes out of the taxpayers’ pocket — has increased from $37,000 in 2007 to more than $58,000 in 2012.

The Appeal also quoted a Jennifer Cooper, described as a 20-year veteran of NDOT, as saying, “The cuts have been excruciating to my family. We’ve lost our home; we can no longer afford preventative medical care.”
Meanwhile, a Jennifer L. Cooper, who is listed as a Transportation Planner/Analyst 2, did see her pay reduced 6.4 percent since 2008. In 2012 she racked up nearly $43,000 in benefits. There was no listing in 2007.
Vicky McVeigh, a welfare employee for 22 years, told the newspaper the cuts have been so severe that “we will never regain the things we had prior to the decline.”
And neither will many of those in the private sector, I suspect.
A Vicki Y. McVeigh, who apparently was promoted from Family Services Specialist 2 in 2011 to Business Process Analyst 1 in 2012, actually got a pay increase of $5,000. Though her base pay was cut by nearly $20,000 since 2008, and there could be many reasons for that, her total compensation since 2007 is actually up nearly $6,000.
“We have lost buying power,” the paper quoted Janet Brooks, a 13-year state worker, as saying. “We’ve lost our house, our security, our dignity.”
A Janet R. Brooks, a Revenue Officer 2, had a $2,000 cut in base pay between 2011 and 2012, but the base pay is about the same as in 2008. Since receiving a promotion in 2007 her total compensation has more than doubled — from less than $30,000 to more than $68,000.
Keith Uriarte, chief of staff for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, was quoted as saying some state workers have had pay cuts exceeding 20 percent. Perhaps he should have brought a few of them to the rally.
And perhaps the reporter should have looked up a couple of those salaries on TransparentNevada.com.
Here is some data from “Governing” on public and private sector job losses during the recession:
nevada job loss jpg