Shining the light on PERS

By Jayson Jacoby / The Baker City Herald

It's no secret that Oregon's retirement system for public employees has an insatiable appetite for tax dollars.

Yet PERS officials still possess dark closets in which they shelter certain information.

And PERS defends those sanctuaries with the dogged determination of a machine gun crew in a World War I pillbox.

The Oregonian wants to give state residents a peek into those bunkers.

Oregon's Attorney General, John Kroger, in effect handed the key to the state's largest newspaper.

PERS, predictably, lawyered up.

At issue is The Oregonian's request, under the state's public records

law, for data on all PERS retirees whose yearly retirement benefits

exceed $100,000.

Kroger, one of whose goals is to lop off loopholes from the public

records law, ordered PERS to give The Oregonian the records it asked

for.

PERS hired a lawyer, who has asked a Marion County judge to issue an injunction overriding Kroger's order.

PERS argues, as it did when The Oregonian made a similar request in

2002, that disclosing retirees' benefits invades their privacy without

any compelling public benefit.

Balderdash.

The benefit, PERS, is that the taxpayers learn more about what happens to the dollars siphoned from their paychecks.

Considering that taxpayers have little if any influence on how much of

their earnings is directed to PERS, it seems to us a minor concession

to at least allow them a glimpse at where some of the money goes.

Baker City officials, for instance, estimate that the city's PERS bill will rise by about $70,000 in the next fiscal year.

City residents will no doubt be curious about this. And The Oregonian

and John Kroger, to their credit, believe we ought to be able to

satisfy that curiosity.

As for the notion that releasing retirement benefit records

constitutes, as PERS contends, an "unreasonable invasion of privacy"

that would be "highly offensive" to retirees, that's an even less

convincing canard.

Citizens are entitled to know the salary of any public employee in

Oregon while that person is working. So we're confounded as to why that

right should dissolve as soon as the employee starts drawing a

retirement check. The money comes from the same source, after all.

The legal grounds for PERS' obstinacy are shaky, too. Oregon's public

records law doesn't exempt pension benefits from public disclosure.

In fact the foundation of PERS argument seems to be that, well, we've

not disclosed retiree benefits before, so why should we now?

"Over the years, the advice we received from the attorney general was

consistent with (not disclosing)," said PERS Executive Director Paul

Cleary.

There's a new attorney general in town. And fortunately, he seems to

understand what the "public" in the public records law really means.

13108176
The Baker City Herald
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