Monday, September 19, 2011
By Ed Mendel

SANTA ROSA — The Sonoma County retirement board voted last week to release retiree names and their pension amounts, becoming the latest loser in seven separate superior court decisions since 2009 upheld by three different appeals courts.

When asked by a pension reform group, the three big state public pension systems — CalPERS, CalSTRS and UC Retirement — all released the names and pension amounts of retirees receiving $100,000 or more, needing no prodding from the courts.

But as pensions eat up more of state and local government budgets, a number of the 20 independent county retirement systems that operate under a 1937 act have refused to reveal how pension funds are being spent.

In addition to the pension reform group, several newspapers, a taxpayer association and a nonprofit freedom-of-speech group also have sued to force county systems to reveal pension records. They have an unbroken string of victories.

Superior courts have ordered disclosures by retirement systems in Contra Costa, Stanislaus, Orange, Ventura, San Diego, Sacramento and Sonoma counties, upheld by appeals court decisions in San Diego, Sacramento and Sonoma.

Much of the court battle has been over a provision in the 1937 act that says “individual records of members” shall not be disclosed. Part of the rebuttal is that the system’s list of members and pension amounts is not “individual” like a health record.

The county systems also have argued that release of pension records violate privacy and could lead to physical or financial harm of members, possibly even suits against the system by members alleging breach of fiduciary duty.

Taking a different view, several county systems, among them San Mateo and Marin, released pension records without a court order. One of the holdouts is the largest county system, Los Angeles.

After the Sonoma County Employees Retirement Association board decided in closed session not to challenge an appeals court decision, their fiduciary counsel said the new ruling is different from previous appeals court rulings in Sacramento and San Diego.

Neil Baker said the Sonoma ruling gives a narrow analytical model that places the name and gross pension amount in the general context of public compensation, bringing clarity to an area that was not resolved in the simple language of the statute.

“The position that the board took in relation to the statute the court found to be fundamentally reasonable,” Baker told the board. “In the end it just simply disagreed that it extended to the specific information, names and gross amount.”

An underlying issue is that the pension records could aid a drive for pension reform, particularly if the focus is on six-figure pensions of $100,000 a year or more, which might seem excessive to many persons.

The records obtained by a reform group from the three state systems and the counties, either by court order or voluntarily, are for retirees in the “$100,000 pension club.” The state records are posted on the group’s website.

“The main thing is to engage people when you talk about pensions, because it’s boring to people,” said Marcia Fritz, president of the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility. “When we put the list up, it was the same reaction as ours — unbelievable.”

Fritz said the lists help taxpayers “connect the dots,” showing where their tax dollars are going as government programs and services are cut to help fund pensions that are now rare in the private sector.

She said the lists also are a reminder that “upper management,” which advised policymakers on pension increases, “lined their pockets” and share in the higher pensions critics say are unaffordable.

The California Public Employees Retirement System says only 2 percent of its retirees have pensions of $100,000 or more a year. The average pension for state workers retiring during the last fiscal year was about $38,000.

After the San Diego county system released pension records early this month, Fritz held a news conference with Councilman Carl DeMaio, who is running for mayor and co-sponsoring a ballot measure to switch new city hires to 401(k)-style plans.

At the Oscar-themed news event Fritz’s group gave the third annual “Hall of Shame” awards to 10 recipients of big pensions, four from the San Diego County system.

“The awards ceremony kicked off with foundation President Marcia Fritz walking across a short red carpet laid out in front of a podium while displaying an Oscar-like statue with a picture of a lemon pasted on the front,” the San Diego Union-Tribune reported.

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