WatchSonoma Watch

County report backs pension hike process



Sonoma County officials appear to have not fully met a public notice requirement when they approved enhanced pensions for county employees a decade ago, an inquiry by county attorneys has found.

The finding, contained in a report going before the county Board of Supervisors today, sides with an allegation advanced in July by the county grand jury.

But the apparent procedural flaw isn’t enough to invalidate the pensions received by 1,000 county retirees and the benefits promised to thousands of current workers, the attorneys said.

Those benefits are vested rights with strong legal protections, regardless of any procedural errors in their adoption, they said.

The conclusion takes on the key question of the grand jury, which asked in its report whether the 2002 pension increases were legal. The question arose from a complaint filed by a pension system critic who has alleged that the past Board of Supervisors did not follow various legal requirements when it authorized the more generous benefits.

The critic, Santa Rosa winemaker Ken Churchill, contends the alleged missteps could be grounds for rolling back the higher pension formulas.

He called the report from the County Counsel’s Office “incomplete” and suggested other attorneys could find justification to reverse the pension decisions on procedural grounds.

“We asked for an independent investigation,” Churchill said. “That wasn’t done.”

The investigation by the County Counsel’s Office included a supporting document from Steptoe and Johnson, a Washington legal firm with expertise in public pension issues.

The review by county and private attorneys found most of the grand jury’s claims were in error, based on laws added in recent years and not in place at the time the pensions were changed.

But the report did find some merit to one claim.

According to the report, no records exist to show that the Board of Supervisors gave the public a chance to review and comment on the financial effect of the enhanced benefits at a meeting at least two weeks before their adoption, as required by law.

The attorneys said while the county may have fallen short of “full compliance,” it still achieved “substantial compliance” because of other related public meetings held during the period.

Those included six Board of Supervisors meetings from mid-2002 to mid-2003 that dealt with labor contracts and preliminary votes on enhanced pensions and four other meetings before county supervisors and the county retirement board dealing with related pension matters.

Churchill has suggested the procedural flaws were deliberate. Under little public scrutiny at the time, county officials and consultants vastly underestimated the cost of the enhanced benefits for taxpayers, he said. Since 2000, those costs are up 400 percent, records show.

“Why was the public kept in the dark? I think they did not want to set off any alarms,” Churchill said.

County Counsel Bruce Goldstein said he found no evidence in interviews or records that county staff, elected officials or others involved tried to hide financial information connected to the pension changes.

“Was it as transparent as it should have been? No,” said Shirlee Zane, chairwoman of the current Board of Supervisors.

The board, now with only one member, Valerie Brown, who was serving in 2002 when the first pension votes occurred, is set to recommend tighter public notice checks as part of its grand jury response.

Zane and other county leaders, nevertheless, were unified in defending the legality of the enhanced pensions. Trying to roll them back would be a costly lost cause, officials said, so the county will continue to pursue changes through legislation and collective bargaining.

You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett. wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.

9 Responses to “County report backs pension hike process”

  1. Annie Erving says:

    reply Upton Sinclair

    “It was voted on; sorry if you were in the minority.”

    Upton – so you know MOST of the line level employees at the county were working when the vote was taken.

    Everytime the Board of Supervisors votes – during work day on Tuesdays. I have taken vacation to do the “2″ minute speak many times.

    This particular vote – I did not know about until management made it a done deal.

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  2. Bill me says:

    And Zane just voted Tuesday to have construction workers lose their pensions while working on taxpayer funded projects. She sure isn’t going to give up her own ill-gotten pension but she will happily take it away from working class folks. We need to show Chairwoman Zane the exit as soon as possible.

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  3. GAJ says:

    @Taxpayer, there were consequences for the BOS at the time.

    They nearly doubled their Pensions!

    Don’t expect the current sorry lot to do the right thing and cut their own pay and eliminate their pensions as the Legislature has done.

    They are, and remain, a contemptible lot unwilling to make significant sacrifices themselves while asking others to do so.

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  4. Taxpayer says:

    No consequences for the BOS that were in charge at the time.WHY?

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  5. Upton Sinclair says:

    @Annie Erving

    “ANY more need to be said?”

    Yes. Assuming that you are a County employee, YOUR retirement was enhanced 10 years ago.

    It was voted on; sorry if you were in the minority.

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  6. Dick Tracy says:

    @Fiscal Conservative

    “I refuse to be a taxpaying slave for ill gotten $2Billion in entitlements.”

    “I suggest this matter be brought before a Judge and Jury.”

    Unless you are just blowing hot air, it appears that your tax matter WILL be brought before a judge and jury.

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  7. Annie Erving says:

    It will be years before the results of this comes to a head.

    Straight up – county employees were FORCED with this 3% of 60 bull …. – 10 years or so ago.

    We county employees have been paying for THEIR .. luxury … ever since.

    Upper management – division directors – department heads – you look at the top.

    These folks made sure to get this SPECIAL bonus perk(s) – in place before they retired. Maybe they were planning this all along, you think ?!?!

    PLURAL perk(s) for these managers etc. – NOT one sole perk – nor the only one.

    Some maybe paid in one day – one week – maybe a month before cashing out; then split.

    Some may have stayed 2-6 months – then split.

    They left the CURRENT county employees stuck here to pay for their BONUS package of 3% at 60 years of age.

    Get OUR money BACK – (current county employees that are working) get OUR money back from … these retirees who are enjoying the perks without contributing anything other than a day pay, a month pay perhaps slightly more.

    Let these people who left pay back OUR money.

    PRO-rate their share, they worked one day – give them a day of the 10 years they SHOULD HAVE contributed.

    IF you are going to screw us again, many current county employees…..we want our money back – you gave it to people that did NOT deserve it.

    ANY more need to be said?

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  8. Fiscal Conservative says:

    Members of the Board, Citizen’s of Sonoma Coutnty are not going to just sweep this under the rug and call it good.

    I refuse to be a taxpaying slave for ill gotten $2Billion in entitlements.

    I suggest this matter be brought before a Judge and Jury.

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  9. Follower says:

    The attorneys said while the county may have fallen short of “full compliance,” it still achieved “substantial compliance” ….

    So does this mean that as long as I pay a “substantial” portion of my Property Taxes, the county will be “OK” with that?

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