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California Pension Records Are Public, Courts Rule

Two California Courts of Appeal have shed light on a hot issue, ruling that county pension agencies must disclose the names and pension amounts of members receiving generous pension amounts.

Both courts, in rulings a month apart, rejected privacy arguments raised by by the agencies and the pension recipients, and both ruled that a state law providing for confidentiality of “individual records” did not allow the agencies to hide records of their payments to named pension recipients.

The rulings — a May 11, 2011 decision from the Third District Court of Appeal in Sacramento (in a case I handled), and a June 28, 2011 decision from the Fourth District Court of Appeal in San Diego — are welcome news for open government advocates and for taxpayers who foot the bill for the state’s overly generous public pension benefits. In an era when private sector pensions have been eliminated or cut back, and public agencies are laying people off and cutting back services, many retired state and county employees are receiving six-figure annual pensions. Public safety employees in California generally are allowed to retire at age 50 with up to 90 percent of their last salary under a so-called “3 percent at 50” formula giving them 3 percent of their last salary for each year of service. To make matters worse, workers are often able to “spike” their pensions by working overtime in their last year or cashing out vacations and other perks just before they retire.

The court rulings relied in large part on a 2007 California Supreme Court decision holding that public employees’ salaries are public. The Court of Appeal in Sacramento County Employees’ Retirement Association v. Superior Court (2011) 195 Cal. App. 4th 440 remarked, “we do not view the fact of an individual’s public retirement to be a personal matter or one likely to generate obloquy. The records will reveal that an individual was a county employee (whose salary amount was public record) and now is a retiree (whose pension amount is public record). SCERS’s claim of severe unwelcome attention to retirees in particular is not compelling.”

Likewise, the court in San Diego County Employees Retirement Association v. Superior Court observed that there was no evidence of adverse consequences from disclosure of public employee salaries, and no evidence of harm from prior disclosure of public employee pensions, even though the state’s largest pension system, the California Public Employee Retirement System (CalPERS) has disclosed pensioners’ names since 1985.

The rulings are welcome news and come at a time when many counties are grappling with how to pay for mounting pension expenses. San Francisco, for example, has two rival ballot measures on its November ballot which would tweak with the city’s pension system and require workers to pay more toward their pensions. These court decisions won’t affect existing pensions, but at least they will shed welcome light for citizens on where their tax dollars are going.

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