She claimed it was for the public’s good…well….just a reminder….
In the first legal test of a controversial new law, a state district judge in Austin has ruled that the City of Fort Worth Employees’ Retirement Fund has sole discretion to determine what information it will release to the public regarding those drawing a public pension.
The cut-and-dried ruling by Travis County District Judge Scott H. Jenkins overturned an attorney general’s opinion.
The Legislature this spring passed a bill, written by state Rep. Vicki Truitt, R-Keller, that took authority away from the Texas attorney general and courts to determine what records regarding members of municipal pension funds are open to public scrutiny and left the decisions to the funds themselves, granting the funds what appears to be more power than any other governmental agencies in the state.
A great deal of interest and attention have been focused on the health of public pension funds in recent years because many are underfunded and at risk of needing more taxpayer money to meet obligations.
“What Judge Jenkins ruled is exactly what we feared when this legislation was enacted,” said Houston media attorney Joseph Larsen, a board member of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. “The Legislature ought to be ashamed of itself for passing something like this. They need to turn around and get rid of it as fast as they can. I just don’t think you can give any agency sole discretion to decide what should be public.”
He said that managers of pension funds are “abusing” the discretion given them by withholding all information about retirees.
He also said that the Legislature has abdicated its role of public oversight involving tax money.
But the executive director of the fund, Ruth Ryerson, said she was pleased with the ruling.
“Although we understand the concern of some open-government advocates about decreased transparency in our retirement systems, we believe the new law reflects the desire of the Legislature to protect information that is of a highly personal nature, especially financial information,” she said in a statement.
The ruling came in a case involving a Public Information Act request by Star-Telegram columnist Mitchell Schnurman about lump sum payouts that were going to some recent city retirees. He said he believed there were vastly greater amounts than were being reported by the fund’s overseers as average.
The fund objected on privacy grounds and asked for an opinion from the office of Attorney General Greg Abbott.
“I didn’t realize this was going to be complicated,” Schnurman said. “Honestly, I thought it would be the same as looking up the salary for a public employee,” which can be disclosed.
Abbott agreed with the pension fund that individual names were confidential.
But he said the fund must release the employee’s age, department where the person worked, years of service and the amount of the payouts.
The fund again objected, arguing that the information “still identifies the person, especially to fellow co-workers” and that it was “intimate and highly embarrassing information.”
The fund sued the attorney general in December, asking the judge to declare the opinion wrong. The Star-Telegram filed a brief intervening in the case on the side of the attorney general.
In the ensuing months, the Texas Legislature passed Truitt’s bill, making changes to the Public Information Act that ensure that pension funds have to release aggregate, big-picture financial information to the public.
But the law, which took effect Sept. 1, also gives pension funds the sole discretion to determine whether any requested financial information can be denied because it may identify a person, and there is no way to appeal a denial.
Jenkins’ ruling says that the new law applies to the Star-Telegram request.
“This ruling is going to have an extremely detrimental effect on the public’s right to know what is going on with their tax dollars,” said Jim Witt, senior vice president and executive editor of the Star-Telegram. “To give pension funds the right to be their own judge and jury in deciding what records should be released is ludicrous. It totally subverts our system of checks and balances. I can’t believe this is what the Legislature intended.”
Truitt has defended the changes to the law in the past by saying that the language was included to prevent the attorney general’s office from receiving constant requests for opinions. She could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
It is the second legal dispute among a pension fund, the attorney general and the Star-Telegram.
After reporter Yamil Berard requested information from the Teacher Retirement System of Texas and the attorney general ruled that it should be disclosed, the retirement system sued in district court in Travis County. That case is pending.Read more here: http://www.star-telegram.com/2011/09/06/3341561/judge-gives-city-pension-fund.html#ixzz1a291vNnN#storylink=cpy