The Los Angeles County Employees Retirement Assn. is refusing to disclose how much its retirees are receiving, even as other counties have agreed to make pension information public.
In the last two months, appeals courts have ordered retirement associations in Sacramento and San Diego counties to disclose the information, and agencies in other California counties are complying with requests to release information on the pensions of retirees.
But the Los Angeles County retirement association has had a long-standing policy of refusing to identify by name how much county retirees are receiving. The Times began renewing its requests to access the data over the last nine months, and the association has continued to reject them, most recently last week.
“Our member records are deemed confidential by statute, and may not therefore be disclosed to anyone except by order of a court of competent jurisdiction or by written authorization of the member,” Christine Roseland, the association’s attorney, said in a letter to The Times.
Roseland argued that disclosing the records “poses a significant threat to retirees’ privacy rights and safety but reveals little if anything about the workings of government.”
But similar arguments failed when argued in front of state judges. On May 11, the 3rd District Court of Appeal ruled that the Sacramento County Employees’ Retirement System “must disclose names and corresponding pension benefit amounts of its members.”
The court ruled that it found persuasive the Sacramento Bee’s arguments that it needed the information to “determine if certain abuses occur.” It said there is a “strong public interest in disclosure” and dismissed the argument that the release would “pose serious danger” to retirees.
The retirement agency disclosed the pension information to the Bee in June, which reported last week that the number of six-figure pensions had surged in the last five years.
The California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility and media organizations won a second victory June 28, when the 4th District Court of Appeal ruled that the San Diego County Employees Retirement Assn. should disclose pension information by recipient’s name.
In that case, Marcia Fritz, president of the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility, testified that without disclosing names, it is “impossible to determine whether the person’s pension is correctly or unfairly calculated.”
She gave examples of pension abuses, such as “the San Ramon fire chief who retired at the age of 51 with an annual pension of $284,000 even though his final salary was $221,000" and the “Moraga Orinda fire chief retired at age 50 with an annual pension of $241,000 even though his final salary was $185,000.”
San Diego County’s pension agency has until Aug. 7 to appeal.
Other Southern California counties have made or agreed to make pension information public, including Orange, Ventura, Tulare, Kern and Contra Costa. On July 8, the San Bernardino County retirement association made its pension information available to the Riverside Press-Enterprise.
Los Angeles County’s retirement association, however, is not reconsidering its stance. In a letter, Roseland, the association attorney, said another court case involving the Sonoma County Employees Retirement Assn. is being considered in the 1st District Court of Appeal.
“If this case were to reach a decision contrary to that in the Sacramento and San Diego cases, the issue would almost certainly have to be finally decided by the California Supreme Court,” Roseland wrote.
Karl Olson, a lawyer who argued on behalf of the Bee in the Sacramento case and on behalf of media groups, including The Times, in the San Diego case, described the response from the Los Angeles retirement associations as “breathtaking in its arrogance.”
“They say pension payments ‘reveal very little about the conduct of the public’s business,’ but they ignore the fact that L.A. County spends about $1 billion a year on pensions. Taxpayers have a right to be very concerned,” Olson said.
Two L.A. County supervisors said the information should be released. The Board of Supervisors appoints four of the nine members of the association’s board.
“It’s fairly common for that information to be released. I don’t know what the argument is against disclosure, and whether it’s persuasive,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. He added: “It’s probably just a matter of time” before the information is ordered released.