By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Officials with Sonoma County’s pension fund said Monday they will take at least two weeks before reacting to a new court ruling ordering them to release pension figures for thousands of county retirees.
A state appellate court last week said that the Sonoma County Employees’ Retirement Association must release the records to comply with open government laws.
The ruling upheld a 2010 order by a Sonoma County judge.
But the earliest that the pension association’s governing board will discuss the ruling is Sept. 15 at its next scheduled meeting, said Gary Bei, SCERA’s administrator.
Whether the board will accept the recent ruling and release the records or take another course, including an appeal to the state Supreme Court, won’t be decided until then, he said.
“The retirement board sets policy in this area. They need to review this decision and set the appropriate course of action,” Bei said.
He would not discuss what options or recommendations he or SCERA’s attorneys would present to the board.
“We go through a comprehensive process,” Bei said. He declined to comment further about the appellate court ruling. Board chairman Jerry Allen could not be reached for comment.
SCERA has contended that a 1937 state law governing county government retirement systems prevented the release of the pension data.
“Obviously the judges think otherwise,” said county Supervisor David Rabbitt, who joined the retirement board at the beginning of this year.
The Press Democrat, which first sought access to the data in public records requests, sued SCERA in October, contending taxpayers were entitled to know how public money was being spent.
The county retirement system appealed a November ruling by Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Mark Tansil that ordered the association to release the pension data.
Rabbitt said he would wait to hear the advice of the pension fund’s attorneys next month before taking a stance on the group’s next move.
Speaking as a supervisor, however, he said he had “no problem with releasing the information.”
“There’s a pretty large proportion of the pension system that is publicly funded,” he said. “I don’t think it (pension information) should be something that is withheld.”
A three-member panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal reached the same conclusion on the Sonoma County case, citing more than 50 years of rulings by the state Supreme Court, lower courts and opinions from state Attorneys General that public employee pay and pension records are public information.
“[T]he public’s interest in knowing the names and pension amounts of SCERA retirees and beneficiaries is substantial, and SCERA has failed to demonstrate such interest is clearly outweighed by the members’ privacy interests,” Judge Sandra Marguiles wrote in the panel’s 24-page opinion released Monday.
The ruling follows two similar decisions by state appellate courts in Sacramento and San Diego, plus at least four other lower court rulings in California requiring public access to government pension records.
The latest ruling amounts to a “third strike” on the issue, said Tom Burke, an attorney for The Press Democrat.
“I think this whole (pension records) access battle statewide is now over,” he said.