The Modesto Bee and two other petitioners have prevailed in a lawsuit to force the Stanislaus Employees' Retirement Association to release information on pensions for public service retirees.
In a decision released Thursday, Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Hurl Johnson ruled that the pensions paid to retirees in the StanCERA system are public information.
The Bee sought the names and pension amounts of those getting $100,000 or more per year. Also joining the lawsuit against Stan-CERA were the California First Amendment Coalition and the California Newspaper Publishers Association, which sought the names and pensions of the system's 2,757 retirees and related beneficiaries.
"We are extremely gratified by the court's decision," said Eric Johnston, The Bee's president and publisher. "This is less a victory for The Bee than it is for every citizen of our community and their right to know how their government operates and how their tax dollars are spent."
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Mark Vasché, editor and senior vice president, said the decision affirms the paper's commitment to public service journalism.
"We take our watchdog role very seriously," he stated. "We will continue to diligently monitor public agencies and officials, and pursue any and all avenues to increase transparency and openness in government."
The newspaper filed the lawsuit in late August after its July 8 Public Records Act request was rejected by StanCERA's board. The board oversees the retirement system for employees of the county, Ceres, the courts and five special districts.
The taxpayer costs of funding the system came into focus when Stanislaus County faced a $22.7 million increase in its contribution this year. The StanCERA board opted to shift nonvested benefit reserves to lower the county's obligation.
In responding to the lawsuit, StanCERA claimed the "individual records" of local government retirees are confidential under the California Government Code. Johnson disagreed that lawmakers intended to mean that pension payments are confidential.
His three-page ruling referred to California Supreme Court decisions in 2007, finding that public employee salaries are public information, and a 1977 attorney general opinion that amounts paid to government retirees are public records.
"The public has a right to know how taxpayer money is being spent," Johnson wrote, adding that it's logical to assume that records such as addresses, medical information or retirement elections are confidential because they do not "reveal how taxpayer dollars are being spent."
The judge granted a temporary stay to give time for StanCERA to consider an appeal. The Bee is seeking to recover court costs from StanCERA.
Tom Watson, the association's administrator, did not return calls seeking comment Thursday.
Jim DeMartini, Board of Supervisors chairman and a retirement board member, said StanCERA should not take it further.
"We would just waste more money in appeals," said DeMartini, one of three board members who wanted to grant The Bee's records request in July. "It's not like StanCERA is financially strong at this time."
An appeal would go against prevailing opinion that the records are public. Five months ago, a Contra Costa County Superior Court judge ruled in favor of disclosing local government retiree pensions and the California Public Employees Retirement System, California State Teachers Retirement System and many counties have disclosed the records.
Attorney Karl Olson, who represented The Bee, said the public will benefit from the Stanislaus County court decision.
"We think that when these records are released they will provide valuable information to the public on how public money is spent and enable the public to judge for themselves whether the pension system needs to be reformed," Olson said.
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2321.