Originally posted at California Forward.
By Christopher Nelson
Last week, the planned launch of a CalPERS website that would reveal an abundance of information on pensioners, including names and monthly retirement allowances, was blockaded by several groups representing retirees.
These groups, which include the Retired Public Employees’ Association of California, plan to introduce legislation that would alter the decades-old California Public Records Act to exclude retirees’ names, according to to the Sacramento Bee. The reason, as listed by the Bee, is “that a searchable pension website would expose vulnerable elderly retirees to scammers and identity thieves.”
In reality, the information is already available. At this point, it is through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. A group called Fix Pensions First has already compiled a searchable database available now using FOIA requests to detail the more than 12,200 retirees who are receiving $100,000 or more annually in pensions. The highest paid? Bruce V. Malkenhorst, who receives $530,268.24 annually, more than $44,000 a month, from the City of Vernon.
Pensions have already been cited by officials of San Bernardino, Stockton and Vallejo as a driving reason behind their municipal bankruptcy filings. Last year in the wake of those declarations, San Diego and San Jose citizens voted in pension reform, a signal to some that the dominoes leading toward statewide pension reform were beginning to fall.
Los Angeles Major Eric Garcetti won his campaign in large part by highlighting how connected his competitor Wendy Gruel was to influential unions, undercutting her positioning as a fiscal steward with the independence to address the city’s mounting pension issue.
Clearly, pensions are – and will remain – a contentious and populist topic in a state now just barely back “in the black” budget-wise. This delay of the proposed CalPERS database is, however, indicative of a larger issue that is more foundational than the particulars of pension reform or the “sticker shock” phenomenon of retirees in the “$100,000-a-year Club.”
The issue at hand is the availability of this information to the public. California Forward, as a perpetual champion of transparency fostering accountability in the public sector, not only believes that this and other financial information should be more available, but that a more open and transparent system is inevitable.
The current system, open but with barriers to public access and requirements to petition for access, reflects a 20th Century mindset of transparency. The Brown Act and Public Records Act made information available to the public, but only if a citizen knows where to look, who to ask and what they are looking for.
California Forward is advocating a 21st Century approach, now increasingly the standard in cities and states around the world. Information should be available in workable formats, without having to look beyond an agency website.
With the memory of Bell still fresh in the minds of many Californians, a general trust deficit still persists. Pensions, a significant taxpayer expense – the extent of which is not entirely clear even to policymakers – is an object lesson in the need for enhanced transparency in critical government financial data.
The stall also stands in the way of innovation as far as creating tools that might facilitate the above outlined decision-making. FOIA requests are costly and not a feasible method for either the public or entrepreneurs with the public interest in mind to access this data and crunch it in a way that is easy for lawmakers and citizens alike to retrieve and digest.
These reforms are forward thinking. They are in line with avenues President Obama is directing the Federal Government to pursue and the direction Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom thinks California should be moving.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg told the Bee that he is “glad CalPERS is just taking a little bit of time to strike the appropriate balance between public access and personal privacy.” But he also reiterated the public’s right to know pension information.
The retiree groups have promised to introduce legislation before this session is over. Soon, Sacramento faces yet another test of moving forward or remaining mired in the past.
Chris Nelson is the Editor in Chief of the California Forward blog. He received his B.A. in English from Duke Univeristy and his Master’s degree from USC’s Annenbeg School for Communication & Journalism.
During his tenure at USC, he wrote and edted for the blog Pop + Politics, which was founded by former NPR host Farai Chideya, he was the founding co-editor of USC’s online news publication Neon Tommy, he covered the 2008 election for the Huffington Post’s Off the Bus project, he wrote two feature-length pieces for Los Angeles Magazine, he covered the DNC in Denver and Obama’s Inauguration in Washington D.C., was a News21 Fellow and was awarded the school’s Most Outstanding Print Student upon graduation.