A California pension reform group that believes taxpayers ought to know the names of retired public employees who collect generous retirement checks has hit a legal snag.
A retired Contra Costa deputy sheriff has filed a legal challenge to stop the release of names and pension amounts of former county employees who collect $100,000 or more per year.
Attorneys for Donna Irwin last week filed a request for a restraining order in Contra Costa Superior Court to block the release of the data by the Contra Costa County Employees Retirement Association.
The association initially determined that it must provide the information per a Public Records Act request from the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility.
The outcome of the case could set a precedent for dozens of similar requests across California for pension data and perhaps weaken a successful Contra Costa Times' 2007 lawsuit, in which the California Supreme Court court ruled that salaries and names of public employees must be disclosed.
The foundation has requested pension data from all public retirement systems in California based, in large part, on the newspaper's court case. The organization views the data as a key public education component of its campaign to reform the public employee retirement system.
Some of the state's largest public employee pension systems — including the California Public Employees Retirement System, California State Teachers Retirement System, university and judicial retirement programs — have already supplied or agreed to provide the pension data. But others have refused on the grounds, in part, that the court ruling did not specifically include retirees.
"We don't think the court clearly came down on this issue," said Concord-based attorney Matt Guichard, who represents Irwin. "Retired people have a right of privacy. They didn't bargain for this."
Under the law, Guichard said, retirees' benefits cannot be altered and former workers can do nothing either at the ballot box or through the exercise of individual influence to alter those benefit levels.
Thus, the release of the pension amounts without names will provide sufficient transparency to taxpayers, Guichard argued.
Contra Costa has withheld the pension data pending the outcome of a scheduled July 2 hearing on the restraining order before Superior Court Judge Barry Baskin.
Guichard declined to disclose who or what organization will pay the legal bills.
However, public employee unions have consistently opposed the release of names and salaries of workers, citing privacy and safety concerns.
The Irwin case is believed to be the first legal challenge to the release of pension data after the 2007 case brought by the Contra Costa Times against the City of Oakland. The court found that the salaries of government employees in California, including police officers, are a public record and must be available upon request to "ensure transparency."
"Openness in government is essential to the functioning of a democracy," Chief Justice Ronald George wrote in the 30-page opinion.
The California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility contends the court's ruling extends to the names and pension payments of former public employees.
"We believe the ruling covers pensions and a number of pension groups agree," said Foundation co-founder and former Republican Assemblyman Keith Richman of Northridge.
Although public pension systems rely on investment earnings to help cover the costs, the weak economy has forced states, counties and other local jurisdictions to bolster their retirement accounts with general fund dollars.
Richman said publishing the pension payouts is key to educating taxpayers about what he called California's "extravagant public employee benefits." The foundation posts the pension data on its Web site — www.californiapensionreform.com — as it becomes available.
Richman and his colleagues are working on a statewide ballot initiative that would ask voters to reduce public employee retirement benefits for future public employees, a move he estimated could save the state as much as $500 billion in the next three decades.
Proposed reforms include increasing the retirement age of 50 for public safety workers to 58. It would bump the eligibility for other employees to at least age 65, a figure consistent with the federal Social Security retirement age.
As an additional financial savings, Richman said, the increase in the retirement age would reduce local costs for retiree health care costs as retirees would qualify for federal Medicare at age 65.
The foundation also seeks an end to policies that allow employees to spike their pension benefits, sometimes to figures higher than what they earned while they worked.
"Throughout California, public agencies are paying 15 to 20 percent of their budgets on retirement costs and that's only going to go up," Richman said. "It's unsustainable. Government entities will either go bankrupt, like the city of Vallejo, or they are going to die from 1,000 cuts in services."