By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Having lost a prolonged legal fight, officials overseeing the pension system for Sonoma County government have agreed to release a wider set of records showing how individual retirement benefits are calculated, including the extra pay and perks that can boost retirees’ pensions.
County officials also have agreed to pay legal fees that amounted to $93,516 for The Press Democrat, which prevailed this summer in a 2010 lawsuit seeking access to individual pension records for county retirees. The pension fund paid an additional $106,000 in outside legal costs to defend its case.
A settlement finalized Tuesday wraps up a lingering point of contention between the newspaper and pension officials over the extent of individual records subject to disclosure under a court order in the case.
In its lawsuit, the newspaper sought to force the release of retirees’ names and pension payments.
After a Sonoma County judge ordered those records released in November 2010, and an appellate court upheld that order in August, the Sonoma County Employees’ Retirement Association disclosed records showing the names and payments to 3,916 retirees, including 98 former workers who receive more than $100,000 a year.
The records, however, did not show information about retirees’ years of employment and final compensation — both of which are used to calculate pensions — or give details about retirees’ former department or job class.
Also withheld was information about extra pay and benefits county employees get on top of their salaries that can boost final compensation and increase pensions.
Thomas R. Burke, attorney for The Press Democrat, argued that data has been commonly released by other public pension systems complying with court orders and that it should have been released in the Sonoma County case.
Rather than face additional court action, the county retirement board elected recently to meet the newspaper’s expanded request for data, which also included the original amounts of retirees’ pensions, cost of living adjustments and effective dates of retirement.
SCERA officials told retirees of the decision in a letter mailed last week.
SCERA Administrator Gary Bei declined to be interviewed Wednesday. In an email he defended the pension fund’s decision to withhold the individual records and press its legal case.
SCERA officials have consistently cited a state law governing county pension funds, claiming it prohibited them from releasing individual pension records.
In the past several years, superior court judges throughout the state have ruled otherwise, and some municipal pension systems have turned over records voluntarily as a result.
But Bei and other SCERA officials said the legal landscape was not clear until a recent series of state appellate court rulings, all of which found pension records, with little exception, were not confidential.
“Under the circumstances, SCERA’s response was compelled by its fiduciary duty to its members and beneficiaries,” Bei wrote Wednesday in an email.
Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, who joined the retirement board in January after the legal fight was under way, said he could not fault the board for pressing the case.
But after the appellate court rulings involving Sonoma, Sacramento and San Diego counties showed strong favor for “more disclosure, not less,” it was clear that further wrangling was not warranted, Rabbitt said.
At that point, “the discussion was to cut (our) losses,” he said.
The retirement association is charging The Press Democrat up to about $8,000 for staff time and computer programming to collect the data.
Other newspapers have balked at the cost of expanded records requests. The Sacramento Bee, which won its legal battle to force disclosure of Sacramento County pension records, did not pursue an expanded request due to additional out-of-pocket expenses, said Pam Dinsmore, the newspaper’s community affairs director.
“The significant charges imposed by the retirement board gave us pause,” said Catherine Barnett, executive editor of The Press Democrat. “But we felt we had to get the data needed for an independent analysis as the county confronts pension reform. Too much money has already been spent all around for information we always believed should be public. It should produce something.”
SCERA officials said they expect to release the additional information at the end of January.
It will come at a time of increasing public debate over the pay and benefits earned by government employees.
Although the average pension for all Sonoma County retirees is $29,761, the average for new retirees has risen sharply in the past 10years, to $48,814 for retirees in 2011, records show.
County leaders have called the system “unsustainable” and in urgent need of overhaul. Annual county pension contributions, including debt service, have risen 360 percent since 2000, reaching $97 million for the most recent fiscal year, and are set to double in the next decade without action. The county has long-term unfunded pension promises of $249 million, and $515 million in pension bond debt.
Employees and retirees remain wary of any changes. Some also continue to protest the data disclosures, saying they skew debate about any overhaul and leave retirees open to harassment, identity theft and other offenses.
“When you start putting people’s names and faces in the paper — as you did with the people receiving the largest pensions — it makes them a target,” said Carol Bauer, a retired child protective services director for Sonoma County and president of the 1,500-member Sonoma County Association of Retired Employees.
“It just creates a whole hostility that we don’t believe will ever help pension reform,” Bauer said.