Another Court Agrees: County Pensions Are Public

In the second of three such cases brought in different districts of the California Court of Appeal, a three-justice panel has again ruled that the public is entitled to learn the pension amounts earned by identified county retirees, reports Greg Moran for the San Diego Union-Tribune. One commentator suggests that high pensions are a way for elected officials to reward union demands but with a delayed impact, allowing them to get out of town before the fuse  burns down.

The San Diego County retirement system can’t withhold the names and pension amounts of retired county employees from public inspection, a San Diego appeals court said Tuesday.

The decision by the 4th District Court of Appeal came in a lawsuit filed by a citizens group seeking information on county retirees from the San Diego County Employees Retirement Association. The data was sought by Californians for Fiscal Responsibility, which pushes for pension reform.

The San Diego Union-Tribune, whose Watchdog team requested the data more than a year ago, filed a brief in support of the case along with most of the state’s major newspapers.

The ruling does not mean the data will be released immediately, as the pension system has 30 days to review its appeal options.

The ruling is the second time in the past six weeks that a state appeals court has ruled that data on county retirees is public information and can’t be withheld.

On May 11, an appeals court in Sacramento said that the public has a right to know the pension benefits paid out to public employees in a lawsuit brought by the First Amendment Coalition and the Sacramento Bee newspaper.

The 3-0 ruling on Tuesday in San Diego rejected arguments from the pension system that a section of the state law governing some county retirement systems prohibited the agency from releasing “individual records” of retirees.

The agency also argued that making the information public would subject retirees to criminal mischief, such as identity theft, elder abuse or home invasion by criminals who would target them based on the publicized size of their pension.

Presiding Justice Judith McConnell said that “individual records” does not include data that a retirement system creates “for purposes of conducting the governmental function of calculating and paying out retirement benefits.”

She dismissed the fears that releasing the data would imperil retirees. She wrote that the retirement system for state employees has released the data since 1985. Before then, the information was available through the state controller as far back as 1955.

San Diego’s retirement system could cite “no evidence of any actual adverse consequences from previous disclosures,” she wrote.

Timothy Bittle, the lawyer for the citizens group, welcomed the decision.

“There has not been one court that has said this information is not public,” he said.

Bittle said the decision was important because the group was seeking not only the names and pensions for retirees, but also the work sheets used to calculate those amounts.

That information is needed to scrutinize the data for abuses such as pensions artificially increased by last-minute salary changes or promotions, he said.

The pension system issued a brief statement saying its board will decide how to proceed at its next meeting. In the past, the agency has said it provides sufficient pension information on its website, without naming retirees.

“SDCERA is equally committed to public transparency as well as the privacy and safety of its members and feels it achieves both goals by providing the detailed, but anonymous, data on its website,” the agency said June 2.

The Sacramento system said it will turn over the records and comply with the ruling. SDCERA could decide to ask the Supreme Court to review the decision.

In appealing a previous ruling in the case, San Diego pension system CEO Brian White said, “The board decided to pursue our legal options because the case for needing names is weak and the risk to retired members is great.”

The pension system has so far spent more than $100,000 in its effort not to disclose the names, and the ruling says the taxpayer group is entitled to court costs as the victors in the case.

The decision comes as Jonathan Chait, senior editor of The New Republic, comments in the current issue of The Atlantic that inordinately high public pensions are often the result of elected officials wanting both public support for keeping salaries in line and union support for being generous with compensation.

A powerful force is, in fact, arrayed against the demands of public unions: the desire of voters to pay low taxes. The trouble is that this desire takes the short view, demanding instant gratification. If an elected official pays his workforce more money, he has to jack up taxes. But if he can arrange to have his workforce paid more money years down the line, when he’s not the one coming up with the cash, he can enjoy the best-of-both-worlds outcome of happy employees and happy voters.

So that is what elected officials have done across the country. They’ve given their workforce reasonably modest wages, but plied them with vast pension benefits. By the time the bill comes due, the politicians who agreed to it will be retired themselves, collecting nice pensions, and perhaps being quoted in the local media opining that the new breed of elected officials doesn’t run a tight fiscal ship, the way they did back in the good old days.

 

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