PUBLIC INFORMATION — The California Newspaper Publishers Association has convinced a lawmaker to drop language from her public employee pension spiking reform bill that would have reinforced the notion, repeatedly rejected by trial courts, that county retirees have a right of privacy about how generous their pensions are.
As reported in the CNPA's Legislative Bulletin of June 4,
Legislation introduced in response to newspaper reports of rampant pension spiking by retiring public employees that contained a provision to make pension records confidential has been amended at CNPAs request. AB 1987 by Assemblywoman Fiona Ma (D-San Francisco), which would generally attempt to eliminate the practice of pension spiking, contained a provision that would make confidential the "books, papers, any data, or records, including but not limited to personnel and payroll records . . ." gathered by a retirement board from the county or district as part of an audit. The amendments delete the offending language and protect the ability of newspapers to gather and report the details of individual retirement awards.
Building on the 2008 California Supreme Court decision that established that public pay is the publics business, newspapers have focused on exposing the states pension system, administered through CalPERS, Cal STRS, and a handful of County retirement boards. Newspapers, including The Contra Costa Times, The Modesto Bee with CNPA, and others, have sued county retirement boards under the public records act to obtain detailed information about individual pension awards that showed troubling corruption. For example, the Times suit allowed Columnist Dan Borenstein to report to the public that a Contra Costa fire chief was able to convert, through pension spiking, an $185,000 annual salary into a $241,000 yearly pension.
In its opposition letter, CNPA argued the recent trial court decisions requiring disclosure of the details of public employee pensions are a logical and necessary extension of the California Supreme Courts decision in International Federation of Professional Engineers v. Sup. Ct., 42 Cal. 4th 319 (2007). That case emphatically held that the names and actual compensation of public employees is a public record subject to disclosure under the CPRA. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Ronald George said, Counterbalancing any cognizable interest that public employees may have in avoiding disclosure of their salaries is the strong public interest in knowing how the government spends its money. As we have observed in the context of the public's right of access to court proceedings and documents, public access makes it possible for members of the public " 'to expose corruption, incompetence, inefficiency, prejudice, and favoritism.'
This decision also cited approvingly, 60 Ops.Cal.Atty.Gen. 110 (1977), that concludes the county payroll records of the names and amounts received by retirees are public records subject to disclosure. Said the court: The Attorney General's long-standing position that government payroll information is public is consistent with the widespread practice of federal, state, and local governments. CNPA argued that AB 1987 would impermissibly take disclosable public payroll records held by one agency (i.e. a county or district) and make them confidential by putting them in another box (i.e., with the retirement board).
After many back-and-forth negotiations, Ma and Assembly PERS&S&S committee staff agreed to remove all the confidentiality language from the bill, which was accomplished 3 days ago on the Assembly Floor. The full Assembly approved the bill yesterday. CNPA staff will continue to monitor this bill.