By PAUL PAYNE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The public has a right to know specific details about pension benefits received by retired Sonoma County government workers, a Superior Court judge said Thursday.
The tentative ruling from Judge Mark Tansil came in response to a lawsuit from The Press Democrat seeking the release of information including the names of all retired county employees and the amounts of their annual pensions.
The Sonoma County Employees’ Retirement Association has opposed the release, claiming the retirement records are exempt from disclosure under state law.
But Tansil’s preliminary ruling states that the public’s ability to monitor the expenditure of taxpayer money overrules the interests of retirement agencies and their beneficiaries.
“While the retired county employees may desire to keep their names and the amounts of their pensions a secret,” Tansil said, “the public’s right to know these facts, for the purpose of monitoring the expenditure of taxpayer money, outweighs the interests in personal privacy.”
Tansil cited a 33-year-old opinion from the state attorney general that states the law that authorized the creation of county pension agencies does not exempt the names of county retirees and their pension amounts from public disclosure.
“Openness matters, particularly during difficult economic times,” Tansil wrote.
Officials for the Sonoma County Employees’ Retirement Association could not be reached for comment late Thursday afternoon.
Lawyers for both sides were expected to appear before Tansil this morning in Santa Rosa to review the issue. Because his ruling is tentative, he still can modify or reverse it.
Such preliminary rulings often are used to inform the parties about how the judge has evaluated the legal arguments they have submitted in writing.
It follows numerous public records requests by the newspaper seeking names and pension payments made to retired county employees.
The association has contended that state law governing county-run pension programs requires that such information be kept private. The state Supreme Court and the attorney general have overruled similar claims about the confidentiality of government salaries in favor of more disclosure, the newspaper’s attorneys argued. There has been no similar ruling from state appellate courts on the pension issue.
Recently, judges in four California counties also have determined such pension information should be public.
The Sonoma County Employees’ Retirement Association oversees retirement benefits for nearly 8,000 current and former local government employees, most with county government.
“The names of public employees receiving taxpayer compensation and the amounts of such compensation are matters of paramount concern for citizens scrutinizing the conduct of the people’s business,” Tansil said in his tentative ruling.