The Modesto Bee is seeking a court order to compel the Stanislaus County Employees' Retirement Association to disclose records on the most lucrative pensions of public service retirees.
The lawsuit was filed Friday in Stanislaus County Superior Court. It charges the retirement association had no legal grounds to deny The Bee's request in July for the names of pensioners getting more than $100,000 per year.
StanCERA manages a pension fund for employees of the county, Ceres, the Superior Court and five special districts. The rising cost of taxpayer-funded retirement benefits are straining the budgets of cities, counties and school districts across the state.
Mark Vasché, The Bee's editor, said the legal action is on behalf of the public.
"We are very disappointed that the StanCERA board has continued to withhold information we believe the public is entitled to under state law," he said. "The public ... has every right to know how the money it gives government is spent."
This year, Stanislaus County was faced with cutting personnel and public services to meet a $22.7 million increase in its pension fund obligation before the retirement board cut nonvested benefits to reduce the burden. Actuaries recently have told StanCERA that steps must be taken to ensure the pension fund's solvency in the years ahead.
The Bee's court petition seeks to shed light on Stanislaus County's multimillion-dollar expenditures on public employee pensions. It contends that a 2007 California Supreme Court decision requiring the city of Oakland to disclose employee salaries left no doubt the names and pension amounts of retirees should be disclosed.
"The Supreme Court's reasoning applies every bit as much to pensions," said Karl Olson, a San Francisco attorney representing the newspaper. "Different attorney generals have concluded that the names of pensioners and the amount of their pensions are public. We think the residents and taxpayers of Stanislaus County have a right to know the information The Bee is seeking."
The lawsuit asks the court to order StanCERA to release the records sought in The Bee's July 8 records request. If the court order is granted, it asks that StanCERA be required to pay the newspaper's litigation costs.
A Sept. 22 hearing is set before Judge Hurl Johnson.
County Counsel Jack Doering, whose office advises StanCERA, said he disagreed with the main thrust of the lawsuit. "I see this as a different situation than the prior Supreme Court decision," he said. "I don't think that covered retirement benefits. It covered salaries."
The association says the records are confidential under the 1937 county employees' retirement law and that disclosing them would be an invasion of privacy.
In early July, a Contra Costa County judge disagreed, ordering the release of pension records to the Contra Costa Times based on the Supreme Court ruling.
Those records revealed that 432 retirees in Contra Costa County were collecting pensions of more than $100,000 a year, including 10 with pensions above $200,000 a year, at an annual cost of $55 million. According to news reports, some top pensioners benefitted from pension spiking, or accounting practices such as cashing out vacation time to boost benefits.
The Bee submitted a public records request to StanCERA a week later and the retirement board voted 6-3 to reject it July 28.
Other requests rejected
StanCERA also rejected two records requests this year from the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility, which has published reports on sizable pensions paid to government retirees.
According to advocates for open government, records can reveal if employees manipulate the system to gain excessive pensions. In some cases, former employees earn more in retirement than when they were working.
"Across the state, examination of pensions have revealed numerous instances of abuse or worse," said Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition. "The public can only hold public officials accountable if they know what kind of jobs they are doing in the management of public funds."
Since the state Supreme Court decision, most county retirement systems have granted public access to the records upon request, said Thomas Newton, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association. A small number have dug in their heels, saying they will grant access only under a court order and have spent public funds on attorneys, he said.
Vasché said The Bee never considered backing down, nor will it.
"We will continue to be diligent in holding public agencies and officials accountable, in our coverage, in our commentary and, where necessary, in the courts," he said. "That is a role and responsibility we have, and we take it very seriously."
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2321.