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Governor’s veto preserves openness of PERS records

In Gov. Brian Sandoval’s explanation of why he vetoed SB384, which would have specified some open records for the Public Employees Retirement System while closing others, he accurately hit on key points we had argued in our opposition to the bill.

“SB384 has merit,” the governor wrote. “Protecting public employees personal information from misuse, and adding greater clarity to the law related to public records are worthy endeavors. But SB384 seeks to achieve its goals by limiting the public’s right to access public information, upsetting the established balance between privacy and transparency.”

The issue began with requests in 2011 from the Reno Gazette-Journal for six pieces of information from PERS — name of retirees, amount of salary and pension, date of hire and retirement, and their government employer.

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval talks in his office at the Capitol in Carson City.
Photo by Cathleen Allison/Nevada Photo Source

PERS refused, citing laws that limited access to the retirement system’s files. The newspaper sued — arguing the files may be closed, but the information in them was a matter of public record — and won at both the district court and Supreme Court. PERS officials continued to drag their feet, forcing the newspaper back to court, but finally released the information. It revealed examples of  loopholes in Nevada’s policies that allowed some retirees to double-dip — collect their pensions while going back to work for the government — and fueled criticism over high salaries, especially for people who were piling up overtime pay.

A conservative Las Vegas-based think tank, the Nevada Policy Research Institute, began publishing the PERS information on a website, Transparent Nevada. But last year, when NPRI requested updated information, PERS threw a curveball and refused by claiming it was now sorting retiree information solely by Social Security numbers, and those numbers were confidential.

So NPRI filed its own lawsuit and won at the district court level. But PERS has appealed to the Supreme Court for the second time to try to keep information secret. That case is pending.

The governor was right when he said the bill had merit. It could have covered the same pieces of information the Reno Gazette-Journal asked for almost six years ago and we could have supported it. But the bill, sponsored by Sen. Julia Ratti, went through a couple of amendments and never quite put in enough transparency to make the information useful — or for us to be able to support it.

As Sandoval also noted in his veto message, there likely would remain disputes over the legality of keeping PERS information secret. Any time there is public money involved, there’s going to be a strong argument for public accountability.

The other half of the equation, of course, is the privacy of Nevada government retirees. The impetus for the bill, and the extensive testimony in favor of it, all hinged on the threat of identity theft.

But that argument already had been struck down by the court, because there was no evidence anybody’s identity had been stolen by publicizing PERS data. The testimony that it could happen was speculative, at best.

My testimony did little to assuage the fears of the retirees, a few of whom booed me during the Senate hearing when I said it was never the intention of Nevada’s newspapers to put anybody’s identity at risk. And it still isn’t.

The intent is to hold government accountable, allow the public to scrutinize the spending of public money and the policies related to salaries and pensions, and decide for themselves if they are getting their money’s worth.

Barry Smith

Barry Smith, a former reporter and editor in Illinois, Colorado and Nevada, is executive director of the Nevada Press Association.

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