Court orders release of county retirees’ pension payments in case filed by FAC and the Sacramento Bee

In an important legal victory, the Superior Court in Sacramento has ruled that the pension system for county government workers must make public retirees’ names, and their pension benefits, for all retirees receiving $100,000 or more per year. The decision is the result of a lawsuit filed jointly by the First Amendment Coalition and the Sacramento Bee.

Here is the court’s written opinion:
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From the Sacramento Bee:

Judge orders benefit disclosure by Sacramento County pension system

By Robert
last updated: July 28, 2010 10:09:54 AM

A Sacramento Superior Court judge this week ruled that Sacramento County’s retirement system can’t keep former workers’ pensions secret.

The lawsuit, filed by The Bee and the First Amendment Coalition – a nonprofit, nonpartisan group dedicated to free speech – had sought the names, pensions and other related details for all retirees.

In ruling against the county system, Judge Allen Sumner wrote that the “the public interest in disclosing this information outweighs any interest in keeping it secret.”

Richard Stensrud, chief executive officer of the Sacramento County Employees’ Retirement System, said he will recommend an appeal to his board, which meets today.

“With all due respect, we disagree with the ruling and we believe it’s an erroneous interpretation of the law,” Stensrud said.

In the wake of legal opinions forcing several California counties to release pension data, other counties did so voluntarily. At the state level, pensions above $100,000 a year for both the state retirement system, CalPERS, and the California teachers system, CalSTRS, were posted online by an advocacy group.

The Bee in May 2009 had asked for only those former employees earning more than $100,000 a year in retirement as well, but amended that request last February to include all retirees.

Sacramento County’s retirement system, however, had refused, claiming information about individual retirees is confidential and maintaining that its own regulations required it to keep the information private.

The judge found the “individual retiree” exemption was limited to personal information, such as addresses. He referred to a state Supreme Court decision stating that while public employees may not be comfortable with having their compensation publicized, that is a reality of public employment.

Sumner also cited the current economic climate in ordering the information release.

“Sacramento County faces difficult budget decisions,” he wrote. “Its reduction of critical services has generated significant public debate. The public has a strong interest in knowing how government is spending their money, and a constitutional right to such information.”

Attorney Karl Olson, who represented The Bee, described the ruling as “well-written,” saying it “displays great sensitivity to the public’s right to know.”

“We think it’s clearly correct in light of the Supreme Court’s 2007 ruling that public employee salaries are public information,” Olson said. “Pensions are a huge issue for our cash-strapped state and local governments, and the records at issue here will shed important light on that issue.”

Coming atop similar decisions around the state, including in Stanislaus County, the ruling may dissuade other counties from fighting similar requests for openness, said Peter Scheer, the First Amendment Coalition’s executive director.

“This may be the nail that finally closes the coffin on the effort to prevent the public from seeing pension information for county government employees,” Scheer said.

Scheer added that an appeal would not only cost the Sacramento retirement system more money in legal fees but a ruling in a higher court could set a binding precedent.

“If that’s (their) inclination,” Scheer said, “I’d say bring it on.”
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