The Stanislaus County Employees' Retirement Association has refused to release records about public service employees receiving the most lucrative pensions.
The retirement board, in a July 31 letter, denied The Bee's Freedom of Information Act request for the names of retirees whose pensions exceed $100,000 a year.
It was the second time the association denied such a request this year, despite recent court decisions in favor of disclosing public service employee compensation.
There's growing evidence that employee pensions are straining the budgets of state and local governments. Watchdog groups say the public should be aware of the costs and the impact on public services.
For instance, in April the StanCERA board decided to transfer $60 million in reserves to fund pensions and benefits so the county could avoid paying an additional $22.7 million this year to shore up the pension fund. Officials said meeting the obligation would have required the county to lay off employees and make unprecedented cuts to public services.
In some cases, watchdogs add, the individual records show that retirees are earning more than when they were working.
Groups such as the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility have published pension information released by major pension funds, including the California Public Employees Retirement System. But StanCERA, which administers pensions for employees of the county, Ceres, the Superior Court and five special districts, has kept that information under wraps.
The board considered The Bee's request in a closed session July 28, voting 6-3 to keep the records confidential. Board members Maria De Anda, Mike Fisher, Darin Gharat, Wes Hall, Clarence Willmon and Ron Martin voted to deny the request; Gordon Ford, Mike Lynch and Jim DeMartini disagreed.
In a letter issued July 31, the association said individual records are confidential under the County Employees' Retirement Law of 1937. It further said disclosing the names of retirees and their pensions would constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy.
"We have two Government Code sections that state that member records are confidential, and we don't have any basis to release the records," said Deirdre McGrath, a deputy county counsel who advises the board.
Supervisor backs release
DeMartini, who also is chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, said the taxpayer-funded benefits should be public information.
"Public money is being spent on these pensions," he said. "These public safety retirees are getting more money in pension benefits than what they earned when they were working."
In a 2007 decision, the California Supreme Court said public agencies should interpret the law broadly in favor of public access to government employee salaries and benefits.
The Bee request was submitted July 8, a week after government watchdog groups prevailed in a Contra Costa County Superior Court case in which a retired sheriff's sergeant sued to keep her pension records confidential.
The judge ordered the county's retirement system to release the records. Other parties involved in the litigation were the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility, the Los Angeles Times, Contra Costa Times and California Newspaper Publishers Association.
The records revealed that 432 retirees in that county were collecting pensions of more than $100,000 a year, including 10 with pensions exceeding $200,000 a year, at an annual cost of $55 million, the Contra Costa Times reported. Some of the top pensioners benefited from pension spiking, or accounting practices such as cashing out vacation time to boost benefits, the newspaper reported.
"Pension obligations are gobbling up a greater percentage of local government funding," said Jim Ewert, legal counsel for the publishers association. "The public needs to know what local governments are binding themselves to in their contract negotiations with public employees and negotiations with top-level management."
Marcia Fritz, vice president of the Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility, said that even people sitting on retirement boards are kept in the dark about pension payments. She noted that the disclosures prompted a fire district in Contra Costa County to move toward preventing pension spiking.
The Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility has published "$100,000 pension club" Internet lists of retired government employees and educators. Topping the list of the State Teachers Retirement System is retired Modesto City Schools Superintendent James Enochs, whose annual pension after a 50-year career is $285,500. His pay was $238,500 in his last year as superintendent.
StanCERA Administrator Tom Watson refused the foundation's public records request a few months ago, and since the Contra Costa decision, the group has submitted a second request. The board will consider that request Wednesday, Watson said.
Lawyer disputes requirement
McGrath, StanCERA's legal adviser, said the Contra Costa County decision is binding only on the parties involved and the state Supreme Court ruling applied to salaries, not pensions. StanCERA said it needs to protect the privacy of spouses of dead retirees who receive pension payments, especially those who never worked in public service.
Watson said the total pension costs are made public in the retirement system's financial reports, "so the public knows what the liabilities are." He said The Bee would have to file a written request to obtain a list of the top pension payments — without the names — and the request would be submitted to the board.
Ewert, of the publishers association, countered that StanCERA is defying the state's highest court.
"I think it is going to be difficult for them to defend their decision on legal grounds," he said. "Moreover, it is going to be costly and money foolishly spent in light of all the previous decisions."
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2321.