May 13th, 2011
(May 11, 2011) A state appeals court ruled Wednesday that pension payments to county government retirees are not confidential and must be released as a public record.
The ruling represents the first appellate decision in California over efforts to compel the release of the identities of government retirees drawing more than $100,000 annually.
The case involved attempts to keep the records of Sacramento County government retirees confidential, but affects a Ventura County legal battle over the same issue.
Earlier this week, Superior Court Judge Henry Walsh granted the request of the Ventura County Taxpayers Association for the records of county government retirees. But he suspended the release pending the ruling from the 3rd District of the state Court of Appeal in Sacramento.
Now that it’s come in, an attorney for the taxpayers group said he expects the board of the Ventura County Employees’ Retirement Association to release the data quickly.
“It’s a clear victory,” attorney Jim McDermott said.
The appeals ruling stems from a lawsuit brought by the Sacramento Bee and the First Amendment Coalition over the Sacramento County retirement system’s refusal to disclose the information.
The newspaper claimed it needed the names of the pensioners and their benefits to track potential abuses. The retirement system argued the records were “constitutionally protected, private financial information.”
The retirement system lost in a lower-court ruling, then appealed to the state appeals court. Managers of the system could not be reached Wednesday on whether they planned to appeal again.
Assistant County Counsel Lori Nemiroff, who represents the Ventura County retirement board, was out of town and could not be reached for comment. County Counsel Leroy Smith said he could not comment because he had not yet read the 48-page ruling.
McDermott said the retirement board had told him it would release the data if an appeals court ruled in favor.
Henry Solis, interim administrator of the retirement association, said he expected the board would consider the matter at a regularly scheduled meeting Monday.
It was unclear whether Walsh would need to activate the order at a separate court hearing. The judge did not return a call seeking comment Wednesday. An aide referred questions to managers of the Superior Court, who did not respond.
Retirement Board Chairman Tracy Towner, a senior investigator for the District Attorney’s Office, said he could not comment because the litigation is still pending.
Towner said the board will want to consult with legal counsel before making a decision, possibly at the meeting Monday.
“We’re hoping to get it on the agenda and discuss it in closed session and the board can decide what it wants to do,” he said.
Nemiroff has said the retirement board was refusing to release the data because another state law prohibited it.
“What our board asked for all along was for the taxpayers association to hold off on pursuing this until our board could get more guidance from the Court of Appeal level,” she said.
Dick Thomson, president of the 200-member taxpayers association, said the organization will decide what to do with the data once it is released.
The organization has called for widespread reform starting with rolling back the pension formula for county managers. Thomson said the association also wants to track abuses when a government employee moves from one pension system to another.
“If you don’t have names, you can’t follow those people,” he said.
Read more at vcstar.com.