By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
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.”