A California appeals court ruled May 11 in favor of FAC and the Sacramento Bee in a case involving public access to information about government pensions. The third district Court of Appeal ruled that the California Public Records Act requires county governments–in this instance, Sacramento–to disclose, by employee name, pension amounts paid to retired county employees.
Both the Sacramento Bee and FAC sued the county after being denied the pension information. San Francisco attorney Karl Olson, a member of FAC’s Board, represented both FAC and the Bee.
Although it has been clear for some time that retiree-specific pension information is available for government retirees receiving pensions through the CalPERS system, county governments–and their unions–have argued that county employee retirement systems have a different status, and must provide more confidentiality to retirees (based on a 1937 law, Gov. Code sec. 31450 et seq.). The new court decision exhaustively considers, and rejects, this argument.
Pending lawsuits against the San Diego and San Francisco county pension plans involve the same legal issues. Superior Court decisions mandating disclosure in both those cases are currently on appeal. The question of access to county government pension payments ultimately may have to be decided by the California Supreme Court.–PS
The text of the Court of Appeal decision is available here.
This is the Sacraamento Bee’s news story on the court victory:
Sacramento County pension system loses privacy ruling
Published Thursday, May. 12, 2011
An appeals court ruled Wednesday that Sacramento County’s retirement system must turn over pension data requested by The Bee.
Amid public outcry about government pensions, The Bee and the First Amendment Coalition went to court to force the Sacramento County Employees’ Retirement System, or SCERS, to reveal the pension benefits of retirees.
When Superior Court Judge Allen H. Sumner ruled against SCERS’ bid to keep the information private, the pension system petitioned the 3rd District Court of Appeal to overturn the lower court’s decision.
But a three-justice panel of the appellate court said Wednesday in a 49-page opinion that SCERS “must disclose names and corresponding pension benefit amounts of its members. This does not include the members’ home or email addresses, telephone numbers or Social Security numbers.”
Peter Scheer, executive director at the First Amendment Coalition, called the ruling “a very strong decision.”
“The court took seriously the county’s argument,” he said. “But also after an exhaustive analysis, rejected it in an unconditional, unqualified and very clear way.”
The length of the court’s decision suggests justices were anticipating a review by the California Supreme Court, he said.
In 2007, the California Supreme Court ruled in favor of disclosure of public employee salaries, suggesting the higher court would also rule similarly on pensions, Scheer said.
It’s not clear whether the county system will appeal Wednesday’s ruling.
Richard Stensrud, chief executive officer of the retirement association, said Wednesday afternoon that he had not had a chance to study the opinion or discuss it with counsel. He said he could not respond to questions until the association’s board discusses the matter next week.
Karl Olson, an attorney representing The Bee, said this is the first appeals court decision on the issue.
Previously, trial courts in Sacramento and six other counties have ruled in favor of releasing information about public retirement plans. San Diego and Sonoma counties also are appealing two of those decisions.
The dispute was over the release of the names of county pensioners. The retirement system argued that releasing the names violated the 1937 law that created pension systems in Sacramento and other counties.
The Bee and the First Amendment Coalition contended it’s difficult if not impossible without having names to determine cases of pension spiking or favorable treatment – such as nepotism – that helped boost retiree payouts.
“It’s part of our mission to ensure there’s public scrutiny of government spending,” said Joyce Terhaar, executive editor of The Bee. “We’ve been reporting for several years that local governments are facing higher pension costs even as they’re cutting public services. In all that reporting, the Sacramento County retirement system was the only system to refuse us key information. We believe this clearly should be available to the public and are glad the court agreed.”
The opinion says The Bee submitted declarations from journalists describing increased public interest in pensions – including such issues as cashed-out vacation time, overtime pay in the final year of employment, either of which could result in pension spiking.
In addition, issues of double and triple dipping were raised. The lower court had overruled SCERS’ objections to these declarations.
The appellate court pointed out that the California Supreme Court has held that “the public has a general right to know the names and salaries of public officials and employees under the Public Record Act.”
Sacramento County supervisors in July had urged SCERS to not appeal its case to the appellate court, voting unanimously for the retirement system to make the pension information public.
© Copyright The Sacramento Bee.