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NH court rules retirees' pensions are public

By Lynne Tuohy
Associated Press / November 3, 2011

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CONCORD, N.H.—The New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled Thursday that pension amounts paid to retired public employees and the names of recipients are public information.

The court unanimously rejected a bid by the New Hampshire Retirement System to release only the dollar amounts paid to the 500 retirees who receive the highest pensions. System officials also did not want to release any recipients' names.

The court said the privacy interests of the retirees are no different than those of active public employees, whose salaries are a matter of public record, and the public's right to know trumps the pension recipients' interest in keeping their names and pensions confidential.

"The public has an interest both in knowing how public funds are spent and in uncovering corruption and error in the administration of NHRS," Justice Gary Hicks said in writing for the court.

"Knowing how a public body is spending taxpayer money in conducting public business is essential to the transparency of government -- the very purpose underlying the Right-to-Know law," he said, quoting a decision the court issued last year.

The ruling came in an appeal by the Union Leader of Manchester. The newspaper first requested the information in February 2010. The newspaper's lawyer, Kathleen Sullivan, said that with the Thursday decision, the court "has once again upheld the strong tradition of public access to government records."

Attorney Edward Kaplan argued for NHRS that retirement benefits are different than salaries because they may reflect a person's family and financial situation. But the justices were not persuaded.

"While the amount of a retiree's benefits may be affected by private information such as disability, disclosure of the amount does not reveal any of that private information," the ruling states.

Kaplan referred requests for comment to NHRS. In a statement Thursday, NHRS said it will comply with the court's ruling but did not outline a time frame for releasing the information.

The Supreme Court in 1972 ruled that teacher salaries are subject to public disclosure, and the court last year ruled that the Local Government Center had to release the salaries of its private employees because the center is a government entity.

Attorney William Chapman, who filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the New England First Amendment Coalition, said the ruling Thursday expands the reach of the Right-to-Know law.

"At one level it extends access to salaries to retirement benefits," Chapman said. "It did so because it recognized the importance of the public knowing how and where its tax dollars are spent. That interest can be broadly applied to a number of situations where the government enters into transactions."