NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · MICHIGAN · Freedom of Information · Dec. 22, 2005
Pension payouts are public records
Dec. 22, 2005 · Four Michigan cities must release the names and payout amounts of police and firefighter pension recipients because the state’s open records law does not give public officials a reasonable expectation of privacy in expenses the public pays for, the state Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday.
“Records are not automatically exempt under the [state Freedom of Information Act] merely because they disclose information about private assets,” Judge Peter O’Connell wrote for the 2-1 court. “Accordingly, the pension amounts do not constitute personal information.”
In working on a report for the Detroit Free Press in January 2004, Lansing Bureau Chief Chris Christoff requested information from several Michigan cities asking each for a list of the 20 highest recipients of the cities’ pension payout plans for their retired firefighters and police officers. Many provided the information, but a few withheld names of the retired police officers, citing an exemption under the state’s FOI Act for personnel records of law enforcement agencies.
“The vast majority of municipalities complied with their obligation under FOIA to release public documents — even if they didn’t want to — because they’re not subject to any exemption,” said Cameron Evans, the attorney for the Free Press. “This information has been a source of wonderful stories. There is a major issue at the state level on pensions.”
The Free Press sued the retirement systems in Michigan cities Ann Arbor, Southfield, Taylor and Westland for violating the state’s FOI Act in withholding the names. The Wayne County Circuit Court in Detroit agreed that the cities needed to release that information. The cities had argued that the law enforcement personnel exemption allowed them to withhold the retired police officers’ names, but the court disagreed, ordering the release of the names and awarding the newspaper attorney fees.
The cities’ retirement systems appealed, again arguing that the information is exempt and questioning whether the newspaper had the standing to sue for the records. The Michigan Court of Appeals was not persuaded. The court ruled that the retirees’ privacy would not be violated by releasing their names and dismissed the defendants’ other arguments as well.
“They were making every plausible and implausible argument in this case,” Evans said. “They were going to every possible length to not have this information released. This has been a cut-and-dried case. The majority opinion made a quick rejection of their many arguments.”
Judge Henry William Saad dissented, saying the court went “too far” in requiring disclosure of the retired officers’ names and said the “personal financial information and disclosure” of the pension payments “would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of privacy.”
The cities’ pension systems are expected to appeal the decision to the Michigan Supreme Court.
(Detroit Free Press v. City of Southfield; Media Counsel: Cameron Evans, Honigman, Miller, Schwartz and Cohn, Detroit, Mich.) — CZ