Santa Rosa Press Democrat
“The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.” — Introduction to California’s Ralph M. Brown Act
In a ruling that should have Sonoma County rethinking its disclosure policies, a Superior Court judge flatly rejected an attempt by Sacramento County to keep secret the names of retired county employees and the size of their pensions and other benefits.
In so doing, it reminded California of the prescribed truths noted above.
Although the California Public Employee Retirement System has long since released employee compensation information, Sacramento County was a holdout. The county’s retirement association continued to argue that such information was exempt from disclosure and that privacy concerns trumped the public’s right to know.
Not so, Judge Allen Sumner wrote in response to a lawsuit by the Sacramento Bee and the San Rafael-based First Amendment Coalition.
Sumner ruled last week that the Sacramento County Employees’ Retirement System failed “to meet its burden of demonstrating the public interest in withholding these records ‘clearly’ outweighs the public interest in disclosing such information.”
Further he noted, Sacramento County, as with so many public agencies, has been forced to make deep cuts recently in critical services. More than ever, the judge noted, “the public has a strong interest in knowing how government is spending their money, and a constitutional right to such information.”
This decision comes as no surprise as it’s the latest of four rulings that have re-established and protected the public’s right to know how its money is being spent, including on individual salaries, pensions and other benefits.
Still, at last count, at least nine counties in the state were refusing to give out such information. Sonoma County was one of them.
The policy of the Sonoma County Employees’ Retirement Association has been to release general figures such as the percentage of retirees with pensions in excess of $100,000 a year. But as of last year, the county was refusing to name the people receiving six-figure pensions, citing many of the same arguments used by Sacramento.
It’s time Sonoma County puts down its defenses and recognize that disclosure of public employee compensation is not only the law, it’s the norm.
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