California labor union influence kills public records bill

Well, my earlier op-ed arguing that California needs to put some heat in its sunshine law went spectacularly unheeded, with the bill being gutted entirely last week!

In an exclusive op-ed for the San Diego Union-Tribune, I explore how this modest bill designed to improve governmental transparency was killed:

Sadly, this is how the California Legislature works these days. Neither the overwhelming public support for governmental transparency nor the fact that 99 percent of Assembly members voted to make AB1479 law was enough to overcome the union veto.

Be sure to read the full piece by visiting the San Diego Union-Tribune website or picking up a copy of tomorrow’s paper!

 

California needs to put some heat in its sunshine law

In an exclusive op-ed for The Modesto Bee I discuss the importance of adding penalties to California’s Public Records Act. A slice:

When a government denies access to public records in violation of the CPRA, those requesting the information have only two choices: give up or sue.

Suing can take months and be very expensive. So, many simply give up.

As a result, some governments have become accustomed to violating the law in especially indefensible ways.

Another way agencies obstruct access is by charging excessive “production fees.”

That’s what happened in our recent request from the Southern Kern Unified School District. The district’s official response alleged that providing the requested records would take 35 hours of staff time, and thus demanded payment of a $1,150 programming fee before they would proceed.

The letter closed by directing all questions to the district’s legal counsel, Bill Hornback, suggesting this determination was made in consultation with an attorney.

We often hear from residents who get similar responses and feel they have no recourse and give up.

When the average citizen gets a letter from the government or its attorneys claiming something as fact, how many are comfortable disputing the claim?

Unable to fork over the hundreds or even thousands of dollars, those citizens are simply denied access to the information they are entitled to have.

Because Southern Kern Unified uses identical payroll software to a neighboring school district — who attested the information could be provided in under 5 minutes at no charge — we knew their $1,150 programming fee was bogus.

Despite telling Southern Kern this, no substantive response was provided until we finally threatened legal action three weeks later — at which point the information was provided in just a few hours at no cost.

Be sure to read the whole thing by clicking here!

Public records lawsuit filed against the City of Taft

Today, the Nevada Policy Research Institute (NPRI) filed a lawsuit in Kern County Superior Court against the City of Taft for refusing to comply with the California Public Records Act (CPRA).

The lawsuit stems from NPRI’s work on its TransparentCalifornia.com website — which publishes the pay and pension data of nearly 2.5 million California public employees from over 2,000 unique government agencies.

Taft is the only city in Kern County and one of only a handful of cities statewide that have consistently refused to provide the basic name and salary information requested. The City’s refusal to do so is a clear violation of state law, according to Transparent California research director Robert Fellner.

“The California Public Records Act is emphatic in its purpose to make public all records concerning governmental affairs. Taft’s refusal to provide an accounting of city employees and their taxpayer-funded salaries is a clear violation of the law.”

The City first justified its denial on the grounds that the information did not exist in the specific format requested, but when Transparent California relayed that the information need not be in any specific format, the City denied the request on the grounds that it was ‘nonspecific and unfocused.’

“Rather than focus on identifying records responsive to the purpose of our request — as state law mandates — the City appears intent on contriving any justification possible to keep its affairs shrouded in secrecy.”

The lawsuit asks the Court to compel Taft to comply with the CPRA and provide a copy of records documenting city employees’ name and salary information so that it may be published online at TransparentCalifornia.com.

TransparentCalifornia.com is used by millions of Californians each year and has received praise for its ability to successfully improve transparency in government by elected officials, government employees, the media, and concerned citizens alike.

For more information, please contact Robert Fellner at 559-462-0122 or Robert@TransparentCalifornia.com.

Transparent California is California’s largest and most comprehensive database of public sector compensation and is a project of the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a nonpartisan, free-market think tank. Learn more at TransparentCalifornia.com.

The impact of transparency

More great examples this week of the importance of transparency in government, all made possible as a result of California’s Public Records Act.

The Press-Enterprise continued their outstanding investigative reporting by following up on our finding that a Riverside utilities dispatcher tripled his salary to nearly $400,000 due to overtime.

In Riverside officials knew since 2015 about soaring overtime that exceeded some utility workers’ regular paythe paper dug deeper into the underlying issues, revealing that the practice caused at least some stuff to raise alarm bells years in advance of our report, which unfortunately went unheeded. A slice:

The utility’s large overtime tab in the electric operations division grew steadily beginning around 2012, but it became noticeable in 2015.

In June that year, the emails show that one dispatcher sent colleagues an email with the subject line, “Overtime and REST TIME in DANGER,” in which he proposed they all make suggestions on how to trim overtime costs before management did it for them.

One employee responded: “We have a contract. They have to honor it. … Don’t think stuff up for them.”

In March 2016, Electric Field Manager Ron Cox wrote to Utilities Principal Analyst Shelly Almgren to explain why the electric division had exceeded its overtime budget three months before the end of the fiscal year.

Read the full article here.

In other news, our CalPERS 2016 release received quite comprehensive coverage, as shown below:

Thanks to the tireless Jack Dean and his Pension Tsunami website for compiling the above!

All of this reporting then led to a fantastic Santa Cruz Sentinel editorial, California taxpayers pay high cost for public employee pensionswhich observed that:

… something is out of whack in our state, where government pensions, benefits and salaries are far beyond what most working people in the private sector could ever hope for.

A keen observation. While defenders of public pay extol their high pay as a virtue that others should seek to replicate, it is neither fair nor sustainable when that high pay comes at the expense of those earning much less.

If you value the work of Transparent California, please consider making a tax-deductible donation today!

CalPERS paid out over $20 billion in benefits last year as ‘100K club’ grows to nearly 23,000, new data shows

Update: Membership in the “$100k club” now stands at 62,474, click here for more.

Today, TransparentCalifornia.com — the state’s largest public pay and pension database — released 2016 pension data from the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS).

The data reveal that CalPERS made 646,843 individual payments totaling over $20 billion last year, with 22,826 retirees earning pensions of over $100,000 — a 63 percent increase since 2012.

The top 3 CalPERS pensions went to:

  1. Former Solano County administrator Michael Johnson: $390,485.
  2. Former Los Angeles County Sanitation District GM Stephen Maguin: $345,417.
  3. Former UCLA professor Joaquin Fuster: $345,180.

The average pension for a full-career CalPERS retiree was $66,400.

The below chart reflects the 25 employers with the most retirees collecting at least $100,000 in pension from CalPERS last year were:

Employer

$100K Pensions

Santa Clara County

861

Oakland

523

Riverside County

469

Long Beach

360

Santa Ana

270

Anaheim

269

Santa Clara

240

Torrance

222

Riverside

216

Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District

216

Santa Monica

191

Glendale

189

Sacramento

167

Berkeley

162

Metropolitan Water District Of Southern California

159

Stockton

157

Sunnyvale

156

Fremont

155

Burbank

154

Pasadena

149

Hayward

147

Richmond

141

Newport Beach

141

San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District

133

Alameda County Fire Department

126

With the recent addition of CalPERS data, TransparentCalifornia.com now has over 1.1 million pension records from 33 California public pension plans.

Statewide, at least 52,963 retirees collected pensions of at least $100,000 last year, according to the data.

The continual rise in pension costs demonstrates the importance of making this information public, according to Transparent California research director Robert Fellner.

“Californians will spend over $30 billion on pension costs in the coming year, a price tag which entitles them to full transparency regarding how that money is being spent.”

To view the entire dataset in a searchable and downloadable format, visit TransparentCalifornia.com.

To schedule an interview with Transparent California, please contact Robert Fellner at 559-462-0122 or Robert@TransparentCalifornia.com.

Transparent California is California’s largest and most comprehensive database of public sector compensation and is a project the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a nonpartisan, free-market think tank. Learn more at TransparentCalifornia.com.

LADWP: The information we told you was correct is “extremely misleading and incomplete.”

In response to our earlier press release on the publication of the LADWP’s pension data, the LADWP issued the following statement (condensed to the relevant claims, you can find their full release here):

A press release issued by the Nevada Policy Research Center (aka Transparent CA) today includes extremely misleading and incomplete information about an LADWP retiree that is used to attract interest in the story and is falsely represented as indicative of the LADWP retirement system.  The information about an Engineering Associate omits key information…

[Transparent California] cites the [$363,000 annual] retirement payment of an Engineering Associate who was 87 years old when she retired, having made contributions to the Plan for over 47 years.  Her pension amount was calculated by annuitizing the balance in her account over her life expectancy.

The first thing to note is that the LADWP does not dispute a single factual claim in our release. They acknowledge that a retired engineering associate receives a $363,000 annual pension, as we stated. They are correct that it should have come with some note indicating its unusual nature, particularly as it appears hers is the only case out of the over 7,000 retirees that this applies to.

Yet, the LADWP did not include any such note in the data provided to us. Furthermore, we asked for clarification prior to publication, as shown below:

From: Robert Fellner [mailto:records@transparentcalifornia.com]
Sent: Thursday, July 13, 2017 12:48 PM
To: Mendez, Veronica C.
Subject: Re: Nevenka Ubavich CPRA R17-16

Hi Veronica,

For Nevenka Ubavich, there is a $363,000 annual pension amount report[ed], which is much too high to be the regular, annual amount — as it would be 300% of final salary!

Is it okay if I add a note indicating that it likely includes a one-time payout of some sort?

Thank you.

Sincerely,

Robert Fellner
Research Director, Transparent California
7130 Placid St. Las Vegas, NV 89119
Phone: 702.222.0642 F: 702.227.0927
E-Mail: Records@TransparentCalifornia.com

From: Mendez, Veronica C.
Sent: Friday, July 14, 2017 2:50 PM
To: ‘Robert Fellner’
Subject: RE: Nevenka Ubavich CPRA R17-16

Please don’t. It is not a one-time payout. The information is correct.

The entirety of the LADWP’s response to a request for clarifying or contextual information about this pension payout was that we should not add a note as “the information is correct.”

It is thus particularly ironic that the LADWP today declares the reporting of this “correct” information as “extremely misleading and incomplete,” given that the LADWP was given the opportunity to provide the necessary contextual information, but refused to do so.

Absent this isolated case, the LADWP did not dispute a single claim in our release. If we ignore the case of Ubavich’s $363,000 pension, the next highest pension was nearly $357,000. The average pension and benefits package for a full-career retiree remains at nearly $85,000 and the cost to ratepayers was still a staggering 50 percent of payroll last year.

Given these facts, it is understandable that the LADWP would prefer to deflect attention elsewhere.

To view the entire dataset, please click here.