Amid an outcry from worried retirees, a lawsuit threat and talk of legislative action, CalPERS on Wednesday delayed plans to launch a website that would disclose pensioners' names, their retirement allowances and other public pension information.
Leaders of the 1.6 million-member pension fund had intended to start the searchable database this month, but applied the brakes after government retiree and employee groups said they will ask lawmakers to narrow public information laws to shield some retiree pension data.
The groups worry that a searchable pension website would expose vulnerable elderly retirees to scammers and identity thieves.
"We will be introducing legislation before the end of this legislative cycle," said Donna Snodgrass, legislative director for one of the groups, the Retired Public Employees' Association of California. "We're looking at the language now. We want to at least take out the retirees' names."
The suggestion to alter the 45-year-old California Public Records Act comes just a few weeks after the Legislature moved to cut $20 million in state funding to reimburse cities, counties and other public agencies for costs to comply with the public records requests.
Legislative leaders and Gov. Jerry Brown backed away from the plan after good-government groups and media outlets, including The Bee, blasted the plan as essentially gutting the state's transparency law.
Asked Wednesday about the California Public Employees' Retirement System's database and its decision to ice the project for now, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said he is "glad CalPERS is just taking a little bit of time to strike the appropriate balance between public access and personal privacy."
But his comments stopped short of endorsing a change to the law to exclude retiree names from California's open records law.
"The public has the right to know the amount of pensions that people are receiving, the cumulative amount, that's all fine," said Steinberg, a Sacramento Democrat whose district has a high concentration of government employees. "But not Social Security numbers, dates of birth or personal information."
The courts have ruled government agencies must disclose compensation costs, including employees' names, job titles and compensation. Courts haven't mandated releasing Social Security numbers or birth dates. CalPERS doesn't distribute that information about its members now, nor would its website include that data.
Peter Sheer, executive director of the nonprofit First Amendment Coalition, said Wednesday he doubted legislation to exclude retiree names from public pension disclosure would pass legal muster, since the act has been honed by years of litigation sealed by the state Supreme Court.
"At some point the battle is over," Sheer said in a telephone interview from his San Rafael office. "Ultimately, the requestors won."
Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, said he thinks the law could be "calibrated in some way."
For example, he said, the names of employees or pensioners receiving less than $75,000 annually might be shielded from disclosure.
"Where the right break point might be would need to be debated," Dickinson said. "I have a lot of sympathy for the clerks, the administrative analysts, people who are not getting a large retirement allotment. But I also believe the public has a natural interest in knowing who the beneficiaries are who are doing handsomely."
California's employee pay and retiree pension disclosure laws are some of the most wide-ranging in the nation.
Nevada's pension system, for example, forbids any disclosure of individual member accounts. Oregon's pension fund disclosure rules are much like California's, but also include "the dollar amounts of benefits paid to survivor beneficiaries and alternate payees of members (former spouses), but not the names of those recipients," according to the state's website. "The rules are all across the board," said Tina Leiss, operations officer for Nevada PERS. "It depends on individual state laws."
In keeping with California law, CalPERS already distributes pensioners' information upon request.
The fund planned to start the website this month and then update it regularly. The searchable data would include pensioners' names, their monthly gross pension payment, their base allowance, their cost-of-living adjustment, their years of service, when they retired, their pension benefit formulas, final compensation and last employer.
In a letter to several member organizations last month, the fund said that putting the records online would make some members uncomfortable, but that it could more tightly control the information and its accuracy on its own website.
"We believe our member data will remain better protected on our own website," the fund's letter said, as opposed to releasing it piecemeal to organizations that CalPERS says either make errors handling the data or cherry-pick the most sensational information for political purposes.
Some news organizations have requested CalPERS pension data and put it on their own websites. California Pension Reform, a group dedicated to rolling back government retirement benefits, maintains a "$100,000 Pension Club" database of CalPERS, Californa State Teachers' Retirement System and University of California retirees with annual six-figure retirements.
The Bee reported on the website's impending launch on Monday and Tuesday, triggering a fusillade of complaints from worried CalPERS retirees like 76-year-old Loretta Smith, whose husband Walt retired from the state 15 years ago.
"This just puts a target on our backs," she said. "They'll put out this information and just invite hackers to steal your Social Security."
Soon, the Peace Officers Research Association of California and California Forestry Firefighters joined the retiree groups, which included California State Retirees, to blast the plan, considering a lawsuit to stop the website's activation before deciding on the legislative route.
"(CalPERS) understood. They said, 'OK, OK, OK.' They didn't think we'd be this upset. To their credit they're working with us," Snodgrass said. "They gave us time to introduce the legislation." But, she said Wednesday, she was still swamped with calls from upset retirees: "I've had to recharge my phone three times this morning."