CONTRA COSTA Superior Court Judge Barry Baskin got it right in a ruling that will make it easier for the public to monitor government employee pension abuse.
Unfortunately, it probably won't be the last time citizens will have to fight for the right to inspect pension records that should be made public. For now, however, Baskin's ruling should provide encouragement to those across the state who want to understand how taxpayer money is being spent and serve as a warning to public officials, as well as current and retired government employees, who seek to hide behind secrecy.
At issue was a taxpayer group's attempt to learn the names and amounts of Contra Costa pensioners who receive more than $100,000 a year. Before the Contra Costa County Employees' Retirement Association provided the data, it sent out a notice to its pensioners. Retired Contra Costa Sheriff's Capt. Donna Irwin asked the court to block release of the information.
At issue was her claim of privacy balanced against the public's right to know how its money was being spent. This fight might sound familiar to East Bay residents. In 2007, in a case involving the Contra Costa Times, the state Supreme Court rejected a claim by Oakland workers that disclosure of their names and salaries was an unwarranted invasion of privacy.
Irwin claimed that her situation was different because the taxpayer group was seeking pension records rather than data about active employee salaries. Judge Baskin was not persuaded. Irwin, he wrote in his ruling this month, had "not shown why access to pension information is any different from access to salaried information."
Citing the Oakland case, he correctly concluded, "Access to that information makes it possible for members of the public 'to expose corruption, incompetence, inefficiency, prejudice and favoritism.' Moreover, the 'broadly based and widely accepted community norm' applicable to government employee compensation is public disclosure."
In claims similar to those lodged by employees in the Oakland case, Irwin had argued that her name should not be made public. But as the Supreme Court ruling and Judge Baskin's decision make clear, government employees need to understand that they cannot hide behind anonymity, that they work for taxpayers and they are accountable to taxpayers.
Without names, it's nearly impossible to track cases of excess, and to explain to taxpayers just how generous they are being in the funding of some public-employee pensions.
In recent months, for example, we have reported that 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. That Peter Nowicki, the chief of the Moraga Orinda Fire District, converted a $185,000 annual salary into a $241,000 yearly pension. That if Berkeley City Manager Phil Kamlarz retires at the end of 2011, his $260,000 annual salary will be converted to a $280,000 yearly pension. Names are critical to connect the dots.
At a time when public employee pensions are becoming financially unsustainable, the public right to know the names and amounts of recipients is more critical than ever. To his credit, Judge Baskin understood that.