Teachers’ system says it will comply with ruling
Joseph Spector http://rochesterdemocrat.ny.newsmemory.com/
Albany bureau chief
ALBANY — How much money retirees receive from pension systems in New Y ork will be made public under a ruling Tuesday by the state’s highest court.
The 6-to-0 decision by the state Court of Appeals is the culmination of a legal battle for years over whether the public has a right to know how much employees in state and local governments and schools get annually when they retire.
The Empire Center for Public Policy has been seeking the Court of Appeals’ ruling after lower courts ruled starting in 2011 that the names of pensioners do not need to be made public. The judges ruled Tuesday that several New York City pensions, as well as the state Teachers’ Retirement System, need to release the information.
“In each case, the order of the Appellate Division should be reversed, with costs, and the retirement system directed to disclose the requested names,” the ruling said.
The pension systems argued that the release of the information — which had long been public — could infringe on people’s privacy. The disclosure was also opposed in briefs by two of the state’s largest public employee unions, New York State United Teachers and the Public Employees Federation.
“The idea that anyone’s privacy will be invaded is speculative,” the decision s aid.
The Empire Center, a fiscally conservative group based in Albany, hailed the decision. It publishes pension details on its website, SeeThroughNY.net; it will be reimbursed its cost for the lawsuit.
“Today’s decision is a huge win for the public’s right to know,” said Timothy Hoefer, the center’s executive director.
“The court agreed with our argument that the state Freedom of Information Law actually means what it very clearly says.”
News organizations have filed amicus briefs in recent years in support of the Empire Center’s case, including Gannett Co. Inc., the parent company of the Democrat and Chronicle Media Group. They have regularly reported on pension data.
The Teachers’ Retirement System, which has about 426,000 current and retired members, said Tuesday that it would comply with the court’s ruling. It stopped providing details on pension recipients in 2011.
The only system to keep the records public is the retirement system managed by the Comptroller’s Office. It is the state’s largest pension system, with more than 1 million active members and retirees, and valued at $173 billion.
Michael Mazzeo, president of the Locust Club, the Rochester police union, said he has found certain pension data helpful in the past.
For example, he said data show that the average pension for public employees is relatively small, while those with larger retirement incomes tend to be from management positions — not unionized rankand-file jobs.
But Mazzeo questioned what the public gains in attaching retirees’ names to that type of information. “I’m not sure if that issue of public knowledge outweighs some decency, or some privacy that someone should have,” he said. Mazzeo said he understands the need for transparency, but releasing pension information by position, without names, “gives you everything you need.”
“At the end of the day, no matter what side you’re on, how much information do you need to make your point go across?” he asked. Rochester Teachers Association President Adam Urbanski said Tuesday afternoon that his group had not taken a position on the ruling and that he had not read it yet. Nonetheless, Urbanski said he understands the needs for both privacy and for the public to have transparency in government spending.
“All we want is fairness,” he said. “I’ve never made any effort to keep information from anyone.”
Includes reporting by staff writer David Riley.
“Today’s decision is a huge win for the public’s right to know. The court agreed with our argument that the state Freedom of Information Law actually means what it very clear ly says.”