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Retiree benefits data released to the Bee

The agency that manages retirement benefits for Sacramento County employees provided in-depth information about retirees’ finances to The Sacramento Bee earlier this week after a lengthy court battle.

The Sacramento County Employees’ Retirement System released information about retirees on June 13, Richard Stensrud, the chief executive officer of SCERS said Wednesday.

Joyce Terhaar, executive editor of the Bee, confirmed in an interview Thursday that the newspaper received retiree information from SCERS after suing for it in 2010.“In general, it should have been available from the beginning,” Terhaar said, referring to the data SCERS submitted.

The Bee, which joined with the First Amendment Coalition in a lawsuit against SCERS in 2010, is currently working on stories about the retirees’ information, Terhaar said. She added that she did not know the dates the stories will be published.

The Bee stories may report information that includes the names of retirees and beneficiaries who are collecting benefits, their retirement dates, the names of the departments or agencies for which they worked, their jobs at the time of retirement and how long they were in the retirement system, according to a June 9 letter Stensrud sent to SCERS members.

Retirement allowances, cost of living payments and current retirement payments could also be included in the stories, he wrote.

A June 10 Bee editorial said that the taxpayers should not be blocked from learning the information. “That money comes not just from county employees and retirees, but taxpayers, too. Taxpayers have a right to know what they are paying for,” according to the editorial.

James Diepenbrock, the president of SCERS’ board of directors, said the board did not want to release the information because doing so would make SCERS vulnerable to lawsuits by its members.

Diepenbrock said SCERS must adhere to County Employees Retirement Law of 1937. “That act specifically states that we are to maintain the confidentiality of members’ records,” he said. “As a fiduciary, the board and I felt we can’t release this data because of the way the law reads.”

Terhaar said the courts disagreed with the board’s interpretation of the law.

Stensrud also acknowledged the courts’ views in his letter to retirees.

“Unfortunately, however, both the trial court and the Court of Appeals concluded that the disclosure principles of the (California Public Records Act) outweigh the confidentiality provisions of the 1937 Act,” he wrote.

The Sacramento Bee and First Amendment Coalition won both of their legal fights with SCERS. The Third District Court of Appeals decided May 11 that names of SCERS’ retirees and beneficiaries and their payment information should be publicly released, according to a statement on the SCERS website.

The prior court battle played out in Sacramento County Superior Court, which determined in July 2010 that the data about retirees and beneficiaries should be released under the state’s Public Records Act.

“SCERS does not agree with the conclusion reached by the courts, and continues to believe that ‘naming names’ adds minimal value to the oversight of public employee benefits,” Stensrud wrote in his letter.

“SCERS also continues to be concerned that in this digital age the release of such detailed information could be used by people with questionable motives to prey upon vulnerable retirees and beneficiaries,” he wrote.

SCERS charged the Bee $560 for the records it delivered on Monday, Stensrud said. The charge was to cover the costs of SCERS’ staff time to create a new report out of various databases and for conducting manual research for an element of the data that was not in an existing database, he said.

The Public Records Act states that a public agency can charge fees for “direct costs of duplication” of data.

The information can now be obtained by anyone who wants to make a Public Records Act request. Stensrud said he was unsure of what the charge would be to give out the same information that was provided to the Bee.

Read Stensrud’s June 9 letter to SCERS members here.

Kathleen Haley is a staff reporter for The Sacramento Press.

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