The NC treasurer owes Charlotte’s police chief an apology

Editorial boards certainly appreciate the value — and the satisfaction — of a good, strong opinion. We also understand the danger of being too quick on the trigger, especially when reputations are at stake. So it was this month with a disagreement between Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney and State Treasurer Dale Folwell.

Putney is retiring at the end of this year after almost 30 years at CMPD, but he wants to return in a temporary capacity early next year to oversee the city’s security efforts for the 2020 Republican National Convention. Folwell, who administers the state’s retirement plans, said such an arrangement violates state pension law, specifically a clause that prohibits a government employee from collecting a retirement pension with the “intent or agreement, expressed or implied, to return to service.”

Said Folwell to the Charlotte Observer’s Jim Morrill: “That’s totally in violation of the law that’s been on the books for decades.”

In North Carolina, the language about expressed or implied “return to service” has been on the books just six years, not decades. The General Assembly added the provision in 2013 so that state statute aligned with longstanding IRS rules on retirements, the treasurer’s office told the editorial board this week. But that language also is ambiguous enough to leave room for interpretation — if a person is going back to work months after retiring for a temporary assignment, for example, is that a “return to service”? The editorial board has found that regarding plans like Putney’s, states have issued varying interpretations of IRS guidelines, which appear only to explicitly forbid employees from retiring one day with an arrangement to “continue” to work immediately or soon after.

An attorney familiar with pension law told the Observer that the law also makes a distinction between permanent and temporary employment, and that Putney’s plan is probably allowed.

This much is certain: Charlotte officials, who approved and announced the arrangement, clearly were not trying to be sneaky about it. Neither was Putney, who is understandably defensive about his reputation being undeservedly dented. “If I thought I was doing something inappropriately in the first place, I wouldn’t have done it,” he told reporters.

He also said: “I’m not going to roll over and have something taken (that he accrued) over three decades.”

Putney’s defiance is understandable. This board hasn’t agreed with every decision he’s made as police chief, but there’s little dispute he’s served Charlotte well and with integrity. Now, thanks to the state treasurer’s declaration, that integrity is being very publicly questioned.

We appreciate Folwell’s eagerness to be a watchdog, and he has shown himself to be an attentive steward of the state’s money in his first term as treasurer. Certainly, the city could have avoided the Putney mess by clearing the arrangement with the treasurer. But it’s not entirely clear who is right about Putney’s arrangement and IRS rules — although Folwell told the editorial board that he believes he is right. Still, it was and is premature to declare such a plan “totally against the law” without first understanding fully what the city approved and why.

We hope and expect Folwell and Charlotte officials will work together to clarify what federal law allows regarding retirement proposals such at Putney’s. Also at stake is a “hire back” program CMPD has implemented for years that allows former officers to retire then return after 30 days and continue to work. The treasurer’s office has yet to hear from city officials about such programs and plans.

Meanwhile, the treasurer needs to publicly reconsider his quick pronouncement. He damaged a good man’s reputation. He should apologize.