The News-Register staff
A 17-month legal spat between Public Employees Retirement System officials and the News-Register Publishing Co. looks as if it may continue for some time to come.
Having won two key battles against PERS - including a judgment for more than $8,100 in legal fees accumulated by the newspaper since PERS declined to consider waiving a fee of up to $1,000 for production of records - the newspaper plans to amend its 2002 information request and again seek a fee waiver.
Editor and Publisher Jeb Bladine has declared his intent to continue with his quest to obtain data on retirement benefits granted to government employees.
The dispute began when Bladine asked PERS for raw data that would help clarify a public discussion over how many PERS recipients were receiving lifetime pension payments in excess of 100 percent of their highest salary.
PERS officials contended it would cost up to $1,000 to produce the records. Bladine asked for a fee waiver on public interest grounds.
But PERS officials said they lacked the statutory authority to even consider such a request. That contention set off the first rift - over whether a statute requiring the trust be used exclusively for the benefit of PERS members overrides a PERS administrative rule specifically granting the agency authority to approve fee waivers.
The matter was ultimately decided by Marion County Circuit Court Judge Don Dickey, who ruled in favor of the newspaper. That set the stage for the News-Register to seek reimbursement of about $7,500 in attorneys fees.
Assistant Attorney General Marc Abrams, arguing on behalf of PERS, responded with an objection to the paper's request for fees. Abrams contended that the law mandating public agencies pay reasonable attorney fees upon losing a public records fight didn't apply in the News-Register case, since the paper was disputing lack of consideration of a fee waiver rather than the lack of production of a public record.
Again, Dickey disagreed, ruling that PERS had to pay the paper's legal fees. By that point, they had risen another $600.
Bladine estimated PERS spent about the same amount he did on its own legal fees. "The cost to PERS is about $17,000 in order to avoid simply considering a $1,000 request," he said.
The newspaper remains at square one in its effort to obtain the records themselves. But Bladine said he's still determined to get the information he originally sought, plus similar information about activities since his first request in June 2002.
"Since this has taken so long, we find ourselves needing to amend the actual public records request underlying this case so that it can produce more timely information," he said. "We expect that process to begin soon, and we undoubtedly will be asking for a fee waiver related to the amended request."
This time, Bladine said he expects PERS to consider the fee waiver, as ordered by the court. If it ultimately is denied, it could put the newspaper right back in court, this time to argue that the public interest clause of Oregon's Public Records law mandates the fee be waived.