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Counties may be forced to reveal workers' pension payments

A ruling by a state appeals court orders Sacramento County's pension system to make public the names and pension pay for 8,500 retirees. L.A., Orange, San Diego and San Bernardino counties, among others, may have to follow suit.

May 16, 2011|By Catherine Saillant, Los Angeles Times
  • Peter Foy, a Ventura County supervisor who sat on the county's pension board last year, said his colleagues had already agreed to release the information in the case of an appellate decision.
Peter Foy, a Ventura County supervisor who sat on the county's pension… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )

Some of California's largest counties — including Los Angeles — could be forced to reveal the names and retirement benefits of tens of thousands of public employees under an appeals court ruling.

The ruling, issued last week by the 3rd District Court of Appeal, marks the first time an appeals court has ordered the pension information released and came despite arguments from county officials and labor unions that it would violate the privacy of local government employees across the state.

Advocates contend the public has a right to know what it's paying and should have the ability to investigate whether individual workers are engaging in such practices as salary spiking to fatten their retirement pay.

In the wake of the ruling, Ventura County's retirement board agreed Monday to release the names and pension benefits of county retirees there.

The ruling ordered the Sacramento County pension system to hand over the names and pension pay for 8,500 retirees. Labor has fought for years to keep the information confidential.

In addition to Sacramento, 19 other counties in California could be affected by the ruling, including Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego and San Bernardino. All operate outside of CalPERS, the state's enormous public pension system, which already makes the data public.

Richard Stensrud, the Sacramento board's chief, said retirement trustees there would meet Thursday to discuss how to respond to the decision. He noted that retirement boards in two other counties — San Diego and Sonoma — have decisions in other appellate courts pending.

"We think our board should have an opportunity to discuss how they want to proceed," Stensrud said.

Retiree pay data from the Sacramento County pension system were sought by the Sacramento Bee and the First Amendment Coalition amid heightening attention to the cost and sustainability of public employee pensions. The Bee and the coalition sued the system after a public records request for the information was denied.

Administrators of the Los Angeles County Employees Retirement Assn. rejected a request from The Times last year to release information on its more than 54,000 pension beneficiaries. Other pension systems have taken similar hard-line stances, prompting lawsuits throughout the state.

The ruling is a victory for the public and will "help shine transparency on public employee pensions," an explosive topic in recent years, said Karl Olson, a San Francisco attorney who argued the case for the First Amendment Coalition, which advocates for openness in government.

"Pensions are a real problem in California right now," he said. "The public has to know who gets how much in order to really monitor them."

In Ventura County, a trial court ordered the release of pension data after the Ventura County Star newspaper filed suit. The judge later stayed the order, awaiting the appeals court ruling.

By Monday, pension board members in Ventura had decided to throw in the towel in their opposition to releasing the information.

"We will be following the 3rd District decision," said Henry Solis, interim administrator of Ventura County's retirement board.

Peter Foy, a Ventura County supervisor who sat on the county's pension board last year, said his colleagues had already agreed to release the information in the case of an appellate decision.

"Hopefully, they will do what they said they would do," said Foy, a pension reform advocate who traveled the state this year to bring attention to what he says are overly generous pensions.

"You get the benefits if you are a public employee," Foy said. "But the other side is the public gets to know all of your business, which is how much you make and what your pension is."

State and local government enriched many worker pensions in the last decade, making it possible for police officers and firefighters to retire at age 50 with 90% of pay while non-public safety workers can step down at 55 or 60 with 65% to 75% of pay. Bulging stock market returns initially masked the cost of the increases, but counties are now facing spiraling pension payments.

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