The Contra Costa Times, the Los Angeles Times and the California Newspaper Publishers Association will fight a legal move by a retired Contra Costa County sheriff's deputy to block the release of pension data.
The newspapers seek to preserve gains the industry made in a successful case brought by the Contra Costa Times in 2007 in which the California Supreme Court ordered public agencies to disclose as public information the names and salaries of employees.
In conjunction with its intervention in the recent court action, the newspaper organizations also filed a Public Records Act request with the Contra Costa County Employees Retirement Association for the names of retirees whose gross monthly pension benefits exceed $8,333 in any month in 2009, retirement dates, records of pay and formulas used to calculate retirees' pensions.
The legal battle over whether or not names and pension amounts of retirees is public information began in May when retired Contra Costa sheriff's Deputy Donna Irwin filed a petition for a restraining order in Contra Costa Superior Court to block a request for the data by a taxpayer group.
The California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility, a pension reform watchdog group, had requested the data as part of a statewide effort to request the names and pension amounts of former county employees who collect $100,000 or more per year.
The organization views the data as a key public education component of its campaign to alter the public employee retirement system.
In court documents, Irwin's attorney said the release of the information violates retirees' right to privacy.
The newspapers' lawyer, Karl Olson, argued that the Supreme Court's opinion in the 2007 case makes a clear case that "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."
Some of the state's largest public employee pension systems — including the California Public Employees Retirement System, California State Teachers Retirement System — have already supplied or agreed to provide the pension data.
"We think there is an overwhelming public interest in shedding light on the issue of public employee pensions, particularly when the state faces a $20 billion deficit and local agencies face significant deficits of their own," Olson said.
Contra Costa's retirement agency has withheld the pension data pending the outcome of a scheduled July 2 hearing on the restraining order before Superior Court Judge Barry Baskin.