How many retired government workers in your state are receiving six-figure pensions from taxpayers? As more states face larger piles of debt and more voters worry about their own retirements, this question has a new urgency. In Ohio, a group of newspapers has gone to court to obtain the answer.
The Ohio Public Employees Retirement System has refused to make the information public, even though the information was collected by public officials and tracks how public money is spent. State law imposes privacy restrictions that will not allow the release of the information, even if names are blocked out, officials say.
Three years ago, Pennsylvania officials cited similar arguments when they refused to disclose bridge safety data. Even after a Minnesota bridge collapsed, the Pennsylvania officials balked. I testified before a state Senate committee in favor or stronger open records laws, joining a cause championed by other editors and community groups. Ultimately, the Pennsylvania officials relented, and released the data.
In a post about that decision and about the committee hearing on the right-to-know law, I wrote:
Despite the general sense among officials at the hearing that disclosure is a public good, the debates over particulars showed that many officials have lost track of their role. They are not in charge, they work for the public. Have they forgotten "We the people"?
The reluctant Ohio officials are not alone. As Jeannette Neumann wrote in the Wall Street Journal (Fury Over Public Pensions Sparks Disclosure Lawsuits), similar legal battles are underway in New York and California.
Another legal case, however, shows that Ohio public pension officials are not always opposed to disclosure. They have gone to court as plaintiffs, accusing Bank of America of failing to disclose enough information about compensation paid to top banking executives.