By Anne Lowe

The Sonoma County Superior Court ruled Friday that pension information for thousands of county retirees is public information and must be released to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and the public, but the Sonoma County Employees Retirement Association (SCERA)  said it will appeal the decision.

The Press Democrat reports:

Despite rulings in at least four similar California cases that the information is public, lawyers for SCERA maintain the release of such data would violate the County Employees Retirement Law of 1937, exposing the association to lawsuits from its members.

John T. Kennedy, the association’s lawyer, said Friday he will seek an order from the First Appellate District Court to delay the court’s ruling pending the filing of an appeal. A similar pension disclosure dispute is before the appeals court in Sacramento. That case will be back in court December 15.

“Until the Legislature changes the law, we don’t believe the court should,” Kennedy said.

The Press Democrat brought the legal action after SCERA rejected several information requests filed under the California Public Records Act.

Tom Burke, an attorney for The Press Democrat, said in court Friday that previous court rulings, state Attorney General opinions and the California Public Records Act all provide a legal basis for the judge’s ruling.

Burke also said the issue of public pensions is of vital public interest. He noted that Sonoma County recently took on bonded indebtedness of $290 million to partially offset the retirement agency’s unfunded pension liabilities.

He called the association’s argument about getting sued by its members a “red herring.”

“This is truly one of the most pressing public access issues in the state,” Burke said.

Catherine Barnett, executive editor of The Press Democrat, said Friday the ruling serves the public interest. She hoped for the timely release of pension information.
“We want to do thorough reporting so as much as possible is visible when public officials make hard budget choices that turn on pension funding,” she said.

Meanwhile, retirement association officials claimed they were facing a Catch-22 in which they would be sued for disclosure and face public criticism if they don’t.

Jerry Allen, association chairman, said Friday that he doesn’t believe the association has the authority to release financial data. If told otherwise, he said, “we will comply.”