SACRAMENTO — Some Californians, angry that taxes have just gone up, IOUs are being issued and the state may be on its way over a cliff, find few things more infuriating than a big benefits package enjoyed by a government worker.
So some of the 5,100 state and local government retirees who draw more than $100,000 annually are trying to lie low, preferring that the details of their receipts be kept private. And they have asked the courts for help.
They have been prodded by the labors of an advocacy group that has made it a mission to inform the public of every dollar the retirees are paid. The organization, the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility, has an online database that includes the name and annual payout of every retiree in the six-figure club.
At the top of the list, for example, is retired Vernon City Administrator Bruce Malkenhorst Sr., who has continued collecting his nearly $500,000 annual pension after being charged with embezzling public funds.
But it is Donna Irwin, a retired captain with the Contra Costa County Sheriff's Department, who is leading the charge to block the release of such information. She sought a restraining order to bar the county's retirement system from releasing the amount of her benefits to a local newspaper.
Irwin is among those with six-figure pensions, according to a notice sent out by administrators. But officials have refused to say exactly how much she receives.
"As a retired peace officer, I fear that disclosure of the requested information would endanger my safety and the safety of my family," Irwin said in a declaration filed with the court. She declined to be interviewed.
A judge denied her request after The Times and the California Newspaper Publisher's Assn. joined the Contra Costa Times in court, urging that the records be released because there is public money at issue.
It is not clear whether the attorneys for the Contra Costa pensioners plan to appeal the decision of Superior Court Judge Barry Baskin, who wrote, "A transparent government is the cornerstone of our democracy."
The retirees argue that there is no public benefit to releasing the information. L. Douglas Pipes, a former deputy district attorney for Contra Costa County who filed a brief in support of Irwin, called disclosure of the pensions "an invasion of privacy."
Matthew P. Guichard, an attorney for Irwin, said publicizing the amounts retirees are collecting "will in no way lead to reduced fraud, waste and nepotism."
Some of the benefits packages appear to critics to be recklessly generous.
As The Times reported in May, Los Angeles Councilman Bernard Parks, the city's budget committee chairman, receives a $265,000 yearly city pension from his former job as police chief. That is on top of his $178,789 annual council salary.
And John Welter was assistant police chief in San Diego when he became chief of police in Anaheim. He has a $100,000 pension from San Diego and a $175,000 salary in Anaheim.
"It isn't sustainable," said Keith Richman, a former GOP assemblyman who is president of the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility. "The public needs to be aware of the pension excesses in California and the impact it's having now and in the future on our government budgets."
The foundation maintains that state and local governments have put themselves on the hook for billions of dollars in pension payments that they ultimately will not be able to fund through investments -- particularly after the latest market downturn -- leaving taxpayers to bail them out.
The same assertion is made by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and many GOP lawmakers, who are pushing to rein in pension costs.
"Eventually we are running out of money there," said Schwarzenegger. "It doesn't make any sense to promise our . . . employees pensions that we can't afford."