Posted On: September 7, 2011

BART Touches Third Rail in Cell-Phone Shutdown

The Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART) stepped into a touchy First Amendment issue when it shut off cell-phone service this summer in response to protests over a police action.

The decision sparked protests from First Amendment advocates and even criticism from BART board members who thought the agency overreacted to protesters.

BART argues that it has no obligation to provide cell-phone service at all in its underground tube and tunnels. But the protesters argued, with some justification, that once BART provides cell-phone access it shouldn't cut it off to prevent protesters and riders from communicating and peacefully assembling.

Some even likened BART's actions to those of deposted Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, who tried to cut off cell-phone and Internet access to prevent swelling protests in Cairo which eventually brought down his regime.

That comparison may same somewhat over the top, but it does seem that there are better ways to prevent protests from getting out of hand than to prevent peaceful BART riders from communicating with each other and their loved ones. The BART board is in the process of setting a policy on cell-phone use -- and one hopes the policy will be sensitive to First Amendment rights.

Posted On: September 7, 2011

Third Victory for Pension Transparency

A San Francisco appellate court on August 26 handed a third victory to open government advocates wanting to know who's receiving county pensions.

The decision from California's First District Court of Appeal in Sonoma County Employees' Retirement Association v. Superior Court comes on the heels of earlier rulings from Courts of Appeal in Sacramento and San Diego and may signal the end of resistance from county pension organizations which have fought against the disclosure of pension amounts received by their members.

The San Francisco-based court held that state law shields retirees' birth date and age from disclosure, but not their name and the amount of their pension. Like the other appellate courts, the First District Court of Appeal relied upon the California Supreme Court's ruling (in a case I handled) that public employee salaries are public information, and said "the taxpaying public has substantially the same interest in [the retirement agency's] operations and payout levels as it does in the salaries of county employees."

Finally, the court tersely rejected the argument that retirees would be harmed by disclosure: "We find SCERA's claim that releasing information to the public about pension benefits will expose its retirees to annoyance and abuse too speculative to outweigh the public's interest in securing information about how public money is spent."

The latest decision should put to rest the issue of whether county retirees' pension amounts are disclosed. And it should shed light on pension payments which are draining the finances of state and local governments throughout the country, making it harder to balance budgets and provide services to residents. The three rulings won't balance budgets -- but they will enable taxpayers and open government advocates to know where public money is going.