By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane stoked further debate about the transparency of public pension records this week with a letter she sent to the county’s retirement board calling for the release of figures on individual pensions.
County pension officials have refused to disclose those records, saying they are bound by state law and their obligations to retirees to keep the information private.
But withholding those figures, Zane said, only “fuels mistrust between local government and the broader public.”
“(I)t does not serve anyone well to shroud a public retirement system in unnecessary secrecy,” Zane wrote in Tuesday’s letter.
The note, sent on official stationery from Zane’s office, added new scrutiny to a hot-button issue.
With taxpayer contributions to public pensions rising — they’ve more than tripled in Sonoma County in the last 10 years, not including extra payments on pension debt — and examples of six-figure pensions growing more common, advocates of open government and pension reform have increasingly sought access to retirement records.
In some cases, pension officials and retirees have pushed back, prompting legal challenges.
The Press Democrat last year sued the Sonoma County Employees’ Retirement Association over its refusal to disclose individual pension amounts. SCERA officials have appealed a ruling that ordered the information be made public.
Sonoma County supervisors, though, have largely stayed out of the debate. Zane’s letter — which came as a surprise to her fellow board members — quickly changed that this week.
In interviews Wednesday, supervisors mostly distanced themselves from Zane’s comments.
Supervisor Valerie Brown, who has been the most circumspect among her colleagues about the need to overhaul the county retirement system, defended SCERA’s decision to withhold individual pension records.
“They have the right to do that and the reason to do that,” Brown said.
Lawyers for SCERA maintain that releasing individual data would violate the County Employees Retirement Law of 1937 and expose the association to lawsuits from members. Judges in at least four similar California cases have found otherwise and held that pension records are public information.
Brown has also said the county pension system may be better off than its critics suggest. Making individual pension records public, she said, could provide “fodder and fuel for speculation that may have no basis in fact whatsoever.”
“We need to look at this in a very methodical and thoughtful way,” she added, about disclosure of pension data.
Without mentioning Zane or her letter, Board of Supervisors Chairman Efren Carrillo said supervisors needed to “respect (SCERA’s) autonomy.”
“They have their own governing structure, their own authority,” he said.
Questioning SCERA’s decision on retirement records, Carrillo said, could undermine collaboration on what he said was more important work on overhauling pension benefits.
“That’s the issue,” Carrillo said. “We need to be working with the retirement board proactively to make sure the system is sustainable.”
Supervisor Mike McGuire and Jerry Allen, chairman of SCERA’s board, gave similar reactions to Zane’s letter, saying they valued transparency but would wait to see how the appellate court rules on the issue.
Supervisor David Rabbitt, who sits on the SCERA board, was careful to defend its decision to withhold records.
Speaking as a supervisor, however, he said disclosure could “be beneficial because it would dispel some myths that are out there about pension amounts.”
According to SCERA, the average annual pension for its roughly 3,800 retired members is just over $25,000. For new retirees the average benefit is $42,000.
While only 1.7 percent of county pensioners make over $100,000 annually, those cases now beg for more scrutiny of pension records, critics say.
For example, they point to last week’s revelation that Rod Dole, the county’s longtime finance chief, will likely make more when he retires in May from his pension payments than he earns from his current $208,600 salary.
“Once people see how much money is being given away — it’s not sustainable,” said Tom Lynch, a Guerneville resident and county planning commissioner who is a vocal pension overhaul advocate.
He called Zane’s letter “very encouraging.”
Zane, who is in Washington, D.C. on county business this week, said she acted on her belief that government needs “complete transparency.”
SCERA, though not under supervisors’ control, should adhere to the same principle, she said.
“Should I weigh in on that? Absolutely I should. That’s why people elected me,” she said.
“Public pensions — it’s an issue, especially in these economic times,” she said. “There’s a lot of mistrust right now in terms of how public dollars are spent. It does not behoove us to not be as transparent as possible.”