For decades, there was little opposition to making taxpayer-funded pension information available to the public.
It was hard for regular citizens to get their hands on the information. Most smaller newspapers didn't have the time or manpower to file Freedom of Information requests and then spend weeks sifting through reams and reams of information to make enough sense of it to write stories.
Then along came the Empire Center for New York State Policy. Armed with the Freedom of Information Act and a website, the center made the information easily accessible for the public. Suddenly, the information was available to anyone who cared to see it.
Should we be surprised that unions now don't want to release the names of retirees?
As it has done for the last few years, the center filed a Freedom of Information request in January 2011 for an updated list of the teachers' pension fund payments. The New York State United Teachers refused to comply and the Empire Center sued. A lower court and an appeals court have said NYSUT's action is bound by a 1983 court precedent denying a FOIL claim that sought names and addresses of retired police officers. The Empire Center has never asked for addresses.
It's ironic that the appeals court decision came only weeks before Sunshine Week, a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.
Newspapers across the state have published information from public pension databases as a way to inform the public about the state's broken pension system. This system is in no way the retirees' fault. The system was designed at a time when the state was flush with money and when the stock market was producing massive profits. Delving into the inner workings of the pension system wasn't as important when it was a minor line item in a city budget. Now that those costs have skyrocketed, people want to know how that money is spent.
Newspapers don't have to use the names of retirees, but it's important to have the information. Having the names allows newspapers to illustrate such things as the so-called double-dippers, employees who legally retire from one government job, receive benefits and then take another government job, collecting even more money from the system. It's perfectly legal, but that doesn't make it any less costly to taxpayers.
Taxpayers have a right to know this information. They need to see how a broken system is structured so that, in the future, it can be fixed. Hiding the information serves no public interest.
The state Court of Appeals needs to rule on the Empire Center's appeal quickly - and justices need to strike a blow for openness and transparency.