By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Sonoma County’s pension fund board has decided not to challenge a state appellate court ruling and instead will follow a lower court’s order to release pension figures for thousands of county government retirees.
Retirement officials vowed Thursday to disclose the records “swiftly” once they have notified the fund’s 8,000 active and retired members of the decision. That process will start early next week.
The move puts an end to more than a year of legal wrangling over access to pension records of county government employees.
The Press Democrat sought access to the data last summer in public records requests, all of which were turned down by the Sonoma County Employees’ Retirement Association.
The association has contended a 1937 state law governing county government retirement systems prevented the release of individual pension data.
The Press Democrat then sued SCERA in October, contending taxpayers were entitled to know how public money is being spent on pensions.
Late last month, a three-member panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal upheld a lower court ruling ordering the association to release the records.
SCERA’s board waited two weeks, until its next scheduled meeting, to discuss the court ruling. In a decision reached behind closed doors Thursday, the board ordered the pension fund’s staff to “take all reasonably necessary steps to release information in accordance with” the court’s decision, according to a written statement.
Jerry Allen, the board chairman, later defended the association’s efforts to block release of the information.
“We felt like we had to follow the guidance of our legal counsel about what the law said,” Allen said.
A section of the 1937 law states that “individual records of members shall be confidential and shall not be disclosed to anyone.”
But lower courts in at least five California counties, including Sonoma, and now three state appellate courts have ruled that the law does not prohibit the release of individual retirement records, including names and amounts of pensions.
“The court interpreted it for us, which was helpful,” Allen said.
The ruling does not apply to contact and address information or the amount of employees’ own pension contributions, which remain confidential.
The 1st District appellate court also found the association is not obligated to release the retirement age of county employees. The panel found that such information was considered private under state law and could be withheld.
The pension fund retained a private legal firm to represent it in the case. The cost of that contract to date is just over $75,000, according to SCERA administrator Gary Bei.