DONNA IRWIN doesn't want us to know how much her public employee pension is.
The former captain who worked in the Contra Costa Sheriff's Office for 37 years before retiring in 1992 with a base salary of about $68,000 a year now receives a pension of more than $100,000 annually. The question is, how much more? She doesn't want the retirement association to tell us and she's gone to court to try to block disclosure.
The challenge pits her claims of privacy against the public's right to know how its money is being spent. The case, thought to be the first of its kind in the state, threatens to seal information critical to understanding how public employee pension systems work at a time when taxpayer costs are soaring and experts are warning that the system is financially unsustainable.
Many readers have called or written in the past couple of months outraged after reading my reports on pension spiking. In past columns, I explained how Craig Bowen, the retired chief of the San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District, had converted his $221,000 annual salary into a yearly pension starting at $284,000. And how Peter Nowicki, the chief of the Moraga Orinda Fire District, converted a $185,000 annual salary into a $241,000 yearly pension.
The reports were possible because I was able to obtain records from the Contra Costa County Employees' Retirement Association that documented the pension amounts and the underlying calculations. As a result, I was able to detail not only the exorbitant payments but also the methods used to obtain them.
The retirement association released the information to me because of a 2007 state Supreme Court ruling in a case filed by the Contra Costa Times. In that ruling, the high court rejected a claim by current Oakland workers that disclosure of their names and salaries was an unwarranted invasion of privacy.
"Counterbalancing any cognizable interest that public employees may have in avoiding disclosure of their salaries is the strong public interest in knowing how the government spends its money," wrote Chief Justice Ronald George. "... (P)ublic access makes it possible for members of the public 'to expose corruption, incompetence, inefficiency, prejudice and favoritism.'"
In the case of the two fire districts, my recent columns have prompted community anger that has led the respective fire boards to review their compensation and pension rules. The retirement association's open-records policy, which was drafted to comply with the Supreme Court ruling, made that possible.
Meanwhile, a taxpayer group, the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility, this year sought the list of all Contra Costa association retirees drawing pensions of more than $100,000 a year. Similar requests to the mammoth California Public Employees' Retirement System and the parallel systems for teachers and judges, have been honored. But some counties have balked. In Contra Costa's case, the retirement association planned to cooperate. But, before releasing the information, the association sent notice to roughly 450 people whose pensions exceeded the $100,000 threshold warning them that the records would soon be turned over.
Irwin was one of the affected pensioners. She went to court last month seeking a restraining order. The case is expected to be heard July 2. Disclosure of the information, Irwin argues, would cause her "irreparable injury in that my name released in conjunction with my monthly pension benefits would place my safety at risk and my privacy rights will be jeopardized."
It's almost exactly the same argument the Supreme Court rejected when it ruled in favor of release of salaries of active employees. Irwin is now asking the Superior Court to distinguish between release of information on current workers and those who have retired.
It's a flawed argument. The taxpayer burden does not end with retirement. When Bowen and Nowicki spiked their pensions they drove up the liability for the retirement system, a cost that will eventually be passed on to taxpayers. Thus, the public has a right — indeed, a compelling reason — to know what retirees are being paid and how those amounts were calculated.
Irwin says she would not object to release of the pension information if no names were used. That, however, would make it impossible to research cases like Bowen and Nowicki. I learned about them from other sources. But, because I could identify them by name, I could seek their specific records from the retirement association. That would not have been possible if the released records were all anonymous, as Irwin proposes.
Moreover, it's important that the public knows who is taking advantage of the system. Bowen and Nowicki, for example, were in positions of authority in which they played key roles on salary and benefit negotiations — bargaining from which they also benefitted. The public has a right to that information, and can only make the connection if the names are made public. Government employees should not expect to hide behind anonymity.
"(W)e recognize," wrote Chief Justice George in the 2007 ruling, "that many individuals, including public employees, may be uncomfortable with the prospect of others knowing their salary and that many of these individuals would share that information only on a selective basis, even within the workplace.
"... Nonetheless, in light of the strong public policy supporting transparency in government, an individual's expectation of privacy in a salary earned in public employment is significantly less than the privacy expectation regarding income earned in the private sector."
The same principle should apply to retirees drawing taxpayer-financed pensions.
Borenstein is a staff columnist and editorial writer. Reach him at 925-943-8248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.