Editorial: Lawmakers need to protect state open records law

Published: Sunday, Jul. 14, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 6E
Last Modified: Friday, Jul. 19, 2013 - 9:55 pm

In response to a CalPERS plan to release a searchable database of pension information, public employee groups are seeking legislation to block disclosure of such data, including the names of recipients of state pensions.

If California lawmakers were to consider such a bill, they'd be making an enormous blunder.

Just a few weeks ago lawmakers took a public shellacking when they attempted to make the California Public Records Act "optional" for local governments, supposedly to avoid state reimbursements. Will they now repeat that mistake? Will they succumb to heavy lobbying by their biggest benefactors – public employee unions – which want to change the open records law to prevent public release of how taxpayer money is being spent?

Over the past decade, data about public employee salaries and pensions have helped media and non-media watchdogs identify abuses. By analyzing data about retirees with the highest pensions, reporters and other investigators have been able to identify cases of pension spiking – in which a well-connected employee is able to earn a late-career pension boost by arranging with cronies to get a promotion.

Access to records about salaries and pensions helped the Los Angeles Times expose the corruption in Bell, where city officials were padding their salaries – and increasing their potential pension payoffs – to obscene levels.

If the Legislature were to make it impossible to know the identity of pension recipients, it would be making it easier for corruption to flourish.

Is that what lawmakers want?

Leaders of the Public Employees' Association and other state worker groups have so far focused only on limiting the release of pension information, not salary information. But it wouldn't be surprising, if a bill were be to introduced, that at least one of these groups would seek to amend the bill to limit release of salary information. If that had been the law just a few years ago, reporters might never have learned that Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo was making $787,000 per year in salary.

Is that what lawmakers want?

Undoubtedly, some high-ranking officers of public employee unions would prefer that watchdogs have less ability to track pension spiking and other abuses. They are now seizing upon CalPERS' clumsily handled plan to seek a change in state law they wouldn't be able to obtain otherwise.

As The Bee's Jon Ortiz reported on July 9, CalPERS sent out a notice to member organizations stating that it planned to launch a new online database with information about retirees' pensions.

At the time, CalPERS noted that watchdog groups and some media outlets had been posting such information.

"We believe our member data will remain better protected on our own website rather than on external databases kept by news or other organizations," the pension system said in its notice.

Within hours, the pension system, union officials and The Bee were getting complaints from state retirees, with some worried that CalPERS was going to release their Social Security numbers, which was never part of the agency's proposal.

We have no problem if CalPERS decides to completely drop its plan for a searchable online database and continue its current system of providing pension data on request. But this incident should not become a springboard for public employee unions to change the open records act to their liking.

To date, access to pension information has served the public interest, and we are unaware of an instance where it has harmed retirees or put them at risk, including those earning relatively low pensions.

There is no problem here to fix – only one ginned up by CalPERS and the employee groups that control it.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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