Public employee pay and benefits have been hot topics of late, exacerbated by the fiscal crisis in California at all levels of government. This topic reached the courts when The Sacramento Bee sought the pension benefits for certain named retirees of a public employee retirement system.

In Sacramento County Employees’ Retirement System v. Superior Court (May 11, 2011) Case No. C065730, the county employee retirement system conceded that the information was in public records and that there is great public interest in that information.  However, the retirement system argued that the County Employees Retirement Act prevented disclosure because the “individual records of members [employees/retirees]” were exempt (Gov. Code section 31532), i.e., that all information about all members was exempt from disclosure because such would be in “individual records” of members.

The Bee argued that the section should be narrowly construed to protect only information provided by the member, not by public agencies.

Both the superior and appellate courts agreed with The Bee.  Exemptions from disclosure of public records are to be narrowly construed.  This is basic California public policy, as enshrined in the California Constitution and in the California Public Records Act.  And, the legislative history of Gov. Code sec. 31532 supports narrow construction, as well. Information provided by the member, such as home address, spouse’s name, etc., would be exempt from disclosure, but not information furnished by others.  As such, Government Code section 31532 should be narrowly construed.

Interestingly, but unsurprisingly, several public employee associations joined the fight on the side of Sacramento County’s employee retirement system.  The imperious attitude of the public sector is truly amazing.  Those of us who are not part of it are supposed to just shut up and pay our taxes, being given only such information as our masters think we should have, so that our decision-making as voters is handicapped.  Thankfully, the courts got it right – this time.

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About James J. Manning, Jr.

James J. Manning, Jr. is a Senior Attorney with the Reid & Hellyer law firm in Riverside and Mission Viejo and has been with the firm throughout his career since 1976. He practices media law, civil litigation, construction law and mediation. Jim holds an AV rating from Martindale-Hubbard and has been named as one of the Inland Empire's best lawyers by Inland Empire Magazine for several years.

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