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State court orders Sonoma County pension board to release records


A state appellate court has upheld a lower court ruling that requires the disclosure of pension figures for thousands of Sonoma County government retirees.

The Sonoma County Employees’ Retirement Association, which handles benefits for about 8,000 current and former government workers, has refused to release those records, contending that a state law prevents disclosure of individual pension information.

The Press Democrat, which first sought access to the data in public records requests, sued the association last year, arguing taxpayers were entitled to know how public money was being spent.

The county retirement system appealed a Nov. 2010 ruling by Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Mark Tansil that ordered the association to release the pension data.

In a final ruling issued Friday, a three-member panel of the First District Court of Appeal denied the appeal and upheld Tansil’s order that the names of pension recipients and the amount of payments be made public.

The ruling is a clear win for open access to government pay and benefit records, said Tom Burke, an attorney for The Press Democrat.

The decision follows at least four recent lower court rulings in California that determined pension records are public information. A state appellate court in Sacramento came to the same conclusion in a similar case involving Sacramento County’s pension fund and The Sacramento Bee’s push for access to its records.

Advocates of open government and pension overhaul have increasingly sought access to retirement records as pension costs have risen and six-figure yearly payments for top officials have drawn greater scrutiny.

Taxpayer contributions to public pensions have more than tripled for Sonoma County government in the past 10 years, not including extra payments on pension debt.

Catherine Barnett, executive editor of The Press Democrat, said Saturday the release of pension information would provide a clearer picture about a matter of growing public concern.

“Few issues interest our readers more than the role of pensions in the difficult financial choices facing local government. We went to court because the county’s pension fund sought to keep secret information essential to informed public debate,” she said.

Gary Bei, the association’s administrator, said the retirement board had not yet discussed the court decision and when the information might be released.

“We’ll have to get the board involved in reviewing that and setting up a course of action,” he said.

The appellate court panel added one condition to its ruling. It said the association was not obligated to release the retirement age of county employees receiving pension benefits. The panel found that such information was considered private under state law and could be withheld.

Burke said the finding would have no effect on the detailed pension data that must now be disclosed.

Local pension overhaul advocates welcomed the ruling.

“These disclosures will help show how unfunded retirement promises benefiting one generation are being paid by the next generation,” said Tom Lynch, a Guerneville resident and county planning commissioner who has pressed for fuller access to county pension data.

“This is not a fight against our public servants, though some would like to portray it as such,” Lynch said. “This is a struggle to create fair and responsible pension reforms that are sustainable.”

14 Responses to “State court orders Sonoma County pension board to release records”

  1. Fiscal Conservative says:

    This without a doubt will be the biggest local news story of the year.

    Most do not understand that the debt is $billions plus interest. Taxes for future generations to pay.

    Well done Press Democrat.

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  2. Rick says:

    I know one reason they are looking into it closely. Privacy laws. If the judge says to release it, and they just throw it out there and it is later determined to have violated the law, the jusdge says, oops. But the retirement board can start coughing up buck in the lawsuits to follow from everyine who had their records illegally released. I put money away with a money manager and it is no longer my employers money. Same with the Sonoma County Retirement system. It is no longer taxpayers money when it hits the pension system. I know you wish it was and could take it back, but you can’t. The blow this and they pay big time. Give it a few days and they will make sure they do what they can, I am sure. It won’t effect my taxes this year, so I can wait. Next year we will have to see.

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  3. Dan Delgado says:

    John T,
    If, as some posters have argued, most public pensioners enjoy only modest pensions, where is the shame in that? Why the resistance to disclosure? I should think you would welcome such disclosure as confirmation of that fact. But the fierce resistance to such disclosure only heightens suspicions that such is not the case.

    FWIW, I would not be surprised to find many pensions are in fact rather modest, but I refuse to accept that on faith just because you say so. Only those with something to hide would argue against disclosure of taxpayer paid benefits.

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  4. David Muir says:

    The fact that taxpayer payments have more than tripled during the past 10 years is interesting but fails to account for inflation and the increase in the size of the workforce.

    Pension professionals consider pension costs as a percentage of payroll as a more meaningful statistic.

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  5. Bgfoot says:

    Thank you for making what should be free public info, accessible.
    City and government employees should be held accountable for budgets. Because they are retired should make no difference, if they already set up (back when they were working) a rediculous pension, then is that not still our budget? Why can’t we find out what we are doing with our own money. And put a stop to poor or illegal allocations and greed.

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  6. Thoughts from Bedford Falls says:

    Taxpayer payments for pensions have tripled in the past 10 years for County government. And nothing is wrong with this picture?

    As George Bailey said, “Where’s that money you silly stupid old fool? Where’s that money? Do you realize what this means? It means bankrupcy, scandal and prison! Thats what it means! One of us is going to jail well…well its not goin’ be me!”

    Well past time to come clean at the Board of Supervisors.

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  7. Money Grubber says:

    When government seek secrecy, you can bet the employees are scamming the voting public.

    Notice in today’s news that the trial court judges are refusing to allow hearings to be video taped?

    Court hearings are open to the public by Constitutional mandate, but very few members of the public have time for an in-person visit to court rooms. Cameras would allow voters to actually witness all the goings on… both the good and the bad (bad includes inefficiency and incompetence).

    Wonder why the PD doesn’t cover that story?

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  8. John T says:

    “This is not a fight against our public servants, though some would like to portray it as such,” Lynch said. “This is a struggle to create fair and responsible pension reforms that are sustainable.”

    If it’s not a fight against public servants then why is it necessary to disclose the names of the individuals?

    Dan Delgado makes it clear the agenda is to humiliate and shame public employees.

    I have no problem with the publication of job titles & descriptions, years of service, salary, any final year “perks” and spiking. Unless it’s an elected official, disclosing the names serves little purpose other than small minded vindictive jealous payback.

    If you’re honestly concerned about the issues focus on the facts: job titles & descriptions, years of service, salary, any final year “perks” and spiking.

    As someone else said – the PD sells papers by fanning the flames. Detailed analysis is too much work and doesn’t sell papers.

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  9. Paul I. says:

    Check out Kelley, and Kearns…good thing Kelley is out of the water board gig,

    Then look for the managers pensions and see why Sonoma is broke. Just fighting the disclosure tells a lot about the Sonoma Retirement folks.

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  10. Good Times a Coming says:

    One man’s modest pension is another man’s wish he had a pension.

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  11. doodles says:

    Nice job, PD. You may as well be handing out the torches and pitch forks to the crowds. Yes, this is a growing concern to the public, but once again the PD does nothing to help people really understand the issue, and do an analysis on the actual impact of the pension reforms being floated out there. The PD likes to inflame, not inform. The stories, a la Bell, sell papers but do not make us all a better informed public who can participate in logical, evidence-based discourse.

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  12. bear says:

    Fine. Now release the salaries, pensions, stock options, annual bonuses and every other benefit of all private sector employees.

    After all, we pay them, too. Just exactly what are the profits of private sector employees? Or is all this whining just a coverup for private sector theft?

    How do we know how much they are taking us for unless records are made public?

    Don’t like this? Great!

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  13. FurloughedWorker says:

    The discussion of government pensions is skewed by the huge salaries of a few employees at the top. The average pension of a retired County or City worker — someone who worked many years in a rank-and-file job, not a manager — is modest.

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  14. Dan Delgado says:

    About time! Whether it’s state legislators’ office budgets, county executive pay packages or public employee pensioners, all uses of public funds should be open and availabe. Only by shining a bright light on these items can we hope to have any control over them. Elected and non-elected officials have demonstrated time and again that they can not be trusted with public funds, especially when their own personal interests are involved. Shame is our best hope of controlling their greed.

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