CalPERS sued for withholding complete pension data

The California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) is unlawfully withholding information necessary to help safeguard the system from waste, fraud and abuse, a just-filed lawsuit alleges.

The problem of disability fraud has plagued California’s public pension systems for decades, costing taxpayers untold millions.

One of the first documented cases occurred in 1992, when a retired officer drawing a tax-free disability pension was spotted competing in a local rodeo.

As discussed in more detail below, historically lax oversight encouraged such abuses, which continue to this day.

Earlier this year, for example, the Los Angeles Times reported on an allegedly disabled firefighter who had competed in a half-marathon. The Times report ultimately led to an arrest and calls for reform from city councilmembers.

To its credit, and likely in recognition of the fact that the problem extends beyond just those who compete in athletic competitions while on disability, CalPERS encourages the public to report cases of suspected fraud and abuse to its disability fraud tip line.

Yet the fund, which manages over $300 billion in assets and receives nearly $20 billion annually from California taxpayers and public employees, has inexplicably refused to disclose the very information necessary to identify such cases of potential abuse.

Today, the Nevada Policy Research Institute (NPRI) has filed a public records lawsuit against CalPERS to obtain this information for its Transparent California website — the state’s largest and most comprehensive public pay and pension database.

Specifically, Transparent California requested the one-word designation of either “regular” or “disability” that would identify the type of pension received by retirees, so that the public could better assist CalPERS in its efforts to identify cases of disability fraud.

Despite the law’s presumption of openness, and binding case law precedent requiring disclosure of the requested information, CalPERS denied the request by citing a statute that makes confidential employees’ personnel and medical files.

“It’s highly unlikely CalPERS actually believes providing the one-word designation of the type of benefit received by its members is equivalent to providing a copy of their medical records, which is properly exempt from disclosure,” said Transparent California Executive Director Robert Fellner.

“Instead, CalPERS is exploiting the lack of any penalties for governments who unlawfully withhold public records, secure in the knowledge that taxpayers will be the ones required to pay all legal fees incurred.

“Sadly, the lack of teeth in California’s Public Records Act has effectively negated the presumption of openness enshrined in state law. The Legislature must amend the law so that those who violate it are held personally liable, just like any other citizen would be.”

Abuses previously uncovered

Public pension disability fraud in California has been an issue since at least 1992, when investigators uncovered an officer who was drawing a tax-free disability benefit competing in a local rodeo. Further investigation revealed the retired officer had won gold and silver medals in a Police Olympics swim competition the very month she filed for disability, according to an Associated Press report.

In 2005, the Sacramento Bee exposed widespread fraud at the California Highway Patrol Department, where over 80 percent of retiring chiefs would claim injury within 2 years of retirement. Then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed a task force to investigate the Bee’s findings, which culminated in multiple arrests.

More recently, the Los Angeles Times uncovered abuses taking place in the city pension fund, like a firefighter who competed in a half-marathon while claiming disability for an injured knee. At least one retired officer has since been arrested on suspicion of disability fraud since the Times published their findings earlier this year.

“These types of abuses are naturally much easier to detect when the pension fund distinguishes disability benefits from a regular pension,” Fellner said.

“In addition to both the city and county fund of Los Angeles, nearly two dozen of California’s independent pension funds do disclose this information, further undercutting CalPERS arguments for secrecy.”

As indicated above, CalPERS itself recognizes the importance of the public’s assistance in identifying cases of disability fraud, and encourages the public to report suspected cases of fraud to its disability fraud tip line.

“Refusing to disclose benefit type prevents the public from providing the very oversight CalPERS claims is essential in order to safeguard against waste, fraud and abuse,” Fellner said.

CalPERS refusal to identify benefit type on the grounds of confidentiality is even more perplexing, given the vastly more comprehensive and invasive information disclosed by the agency elsewhere.

“It’s hard to imagine a coherent legal standard that shields benefit type, while simultaneously making public the vastly more comprehensive information found in CalPERS own public hearings and state Workers’ Compensation reports,” Fellner said.

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. The website is used by millions of Californians each year, including elected officials and lawmakers, government employees and their unions, government agencies, university researchers, the media, and concerned citizens alike. Learn more at TransparentCalifornia.com.

 

Transparent California helps uncover massive fraud in LA school district

On Monday, the Los Angeles County Office of Education and the Fiscal Crisis and
Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) released their “Extraordinary Audit of
Montebello Unified School District.”

In the introduction, the audit cites the following as an impetus for their investigation:

Prior to the teacher’s request, there were many rumors alleging that some K-12 teachers and classified employees were given the opportunity to earn large amounts of extra money for little or no work, paid from adult education funds.

Coworkers accessed the Transparent California website (www.transparentcalifornia.com), which revealed that some of the district’s instructors earned exceptionally high salaries. This led to questions about how these instructors were earning such high compensation. (emphasis mine)

District administrators were told that instructors, including classified employees, had adult education class rosters with few or no students in attendance, and this raised serious questions that prompted an internal investigation and led to discussions with the county office of education.

The audit then found many instances where “hourly pay occurred during times when classes were not in session,” and that in the majority of cases studied “the district’s payroll records did not have sufficient supporting documents to conclude that compensation paid from adult education funds was for legitimate payroll expenditures…”

In its conclusion, the audit determined that:

there is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that fraud, mismanagement and misappropriation of the district’s funds and assets may have occurred.

The audit could only state that fraud “may” have occurred, citing a requirement that only a court could definitely make such a determination.

Consequently, the audit instructed the county superintendent to immediately inform “the local district attorney that fraud or misappropriation of district funds and/or assets may have occurred,” for further action.

Nonetheless, the audit findings are such that it’s almost impossible to imagine any explanation other than fraud.

The teachers’ use of Transparent California to help uncover this fraud is just one more example of the enormous benefits such transparency provides — although certainly not one we could have imagined when we first created the site!

You can read the full audit by clicking here.

The Palo Alto City Council gets it!

The Palo Alto City Council is in the process of (hopefully) approving a proposal that would add transparency to negotiations with government labor unions.

I wanted to share the below excerpt from Monday’s city council meeting in which the proposal is discussed, as it represents a benchmark against which all other city councils should be measured when it comes to the issue of transparency in government:

The Council’s willingness to try and fix the the status quo of secrecy in government union negotiations is commendable, if not long overdue!

Hopefully more of California’s elected representatives will follow suit.

Transparent California applauds Palo Alto City Council’s transparency initiative

Transparent California — the state’s largest public pay and pension database — commends Palo Alto Vice Mayor Eric Filseth and Councilmen Tom DuBois, Greg Scharff and Greg Tanak for their proposal to increase transparency in collective bargaining negotiations with government unions.

As was first reported by the Palo Alto Daily Post, the proposal seeks to shed light on “wage, benefit and pension decisions [which] are currently reached through essentially private negotiations, without meaningful opportunity for public examination.”

Transparency in labor negotiations is mandatory for a truly representative government, according to Transparent California Executive Director Robert Fellner:

We applaud the Palo Alto City Council for recognizing that the status quo of secrecy in labor negotiations is incompatible with an accountable and representative form of government. Not only does secrecy in negotiations keep the public in the dark about the expenses they are required to pay for, we’ve even seen examples of councilmembers who have approved labor contracts without fully recognizing the extent of the taxpayer-funded perks provided within.

Providing the public with advance notice of the fiscal impact of proposed contracts provides taxpayers with the information necessary to make an informed decision. The status quo of secrecy, by contrast, requires taxpayers to pay the full costs associated with any labor contract, while denying them the opportunity to have their voices heard. Such a notion is incompatible with a healthy democracy, and the Council deserves tremendous credit for proposing to bring sunlight into their labor negotiations.

The Council’s proposal will be heard on February 26, 2018 from 9:15-10:00 PM, according to the agenda.

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. The website is used by millions of Californians each year, including elected officials and lawmakers, government employees and their unions, government agencies themselves, university researchers, the media, and concerned citizens alike. Learn more at TransparentCalifornia.com.

Madera resident uncovers city officials’ hefty pay raises

The ABC30 report, Madera resident claim city administrators gave themselves hefty pay raises, is a great example of how TransparentCalifornia.com is used by concerned citizens interesting in understanding how their tax dollars are being spent.

Click here to watch the TV segment.

As it turns out, that was just the tip of the iceberg.

The questions about Madera’s hefty pay raises led to a full-length response from the mayor in the Madera Tribune.

But that response only made matters worse, as we documented in our report Madera mayor misleads residents in attempt to hide unjustifiable, excessive pay raises.

 

 

Madera mayor misleads residents in attempt to hide unjustifiable, excessive pay raises

Summary: The City of Madera is facing significant financial problems, with a general fund deficit projected for each of the next five years, rising from $1.7 million in FY2018 to $3.9 million by FY2023. Over that same time period, the city’s estimated annual pension costs will rise from $5.1 million to $8.5 million.

As employee compensation — salaries plus benefits — accounts for approximately 66 percent of the general fund budget, it is unsurprising that area residents concerned about the city’s fiscal health have started looking there.

Last month, an area resident discovered the city’s employee compensation costs for top administration staff had increased significantly over the past few years.

After the resident’s findings were covered in an ABC30 report, the issue received widespread attention, culminating in a full-length commentary by Madera Mayor Andrew Medellin in the Madera Tribune.

The mayor wrote that, in FY2015, the city approved a pay increase after a city-commissioned study found that the average Madera job paid 4.4 percent less in total compensation than the “market median” of the 10 other city governments surveyed.

However, the mayor described this pay increase as one that merely increased Madera compensation levels to the market median level. This is false.

The city did not merely increase compensation to the market median. Rather the city provided a pay increase to the market median, plus an additional 5 percent across-the-board pay increase to all employees, followed by an additional 3 percent across-the-board raise to all employees in FY2016 and FY2017.

Thus, the city provided an additional, 11 percent across-the-board pay raise on top of the raise to the market median.

All of these raises were authorized and approved in the same action at the start of FY2015, so it is unclear as to why the Mayor provided residents with only partial information.

Consequently, this analysis merely intends to provide Madera residents with the complete and accurate information they are entitled to.

In FY2015, the city approved a series of pay raises that produced cumulative raises ranging between 11 – 44 percent, depending on job classification. The average job classification received a 20 percent salary raise.

In aggregate, we estimate these raises will result in an additional $1.835 million in annual compensation costs.

We also note that the justification for these raises appears to be weak. There were no signs of staffing shortfalls or difficulty with regards to hiring and retaining employees. In fact, the mayor reported that the average management employee had been with the city for 14 years, a strong indication that the city does not have a retention problem.

Moreover, Madera, when measured on a variety of metrics, was the poorest of all the cities included in the survey. Thus, it is not terribly surprising that their compensation levels were 4 percent below the median. While a desire to increase to the median is not terribly surprising, why the council approved an additional 11 percent raise on top of that increase appears particularly hard to justify.

Background

Last month, a Madera city resident found that city administrators received a significant increase in their total compensation — pay plus benefits — over the past 5 years, despite the city’s growing financial concerns.

The resident’s findings sparked an ABC30 report, which generated significant attention and prompted a response from Madera Mayor Andrew Medellin in the Madera Tribune.

In his response, Medellin attempts to discredit the resident’s analysis by falsely claiming that the source of his data — TransparentCalifornia.com — was unreliable.

In fact, Transparent California’s data comes directly from the city in response to a request for employee compensation data under the same formatting and reporting guidelines used by the California State Controller’s Office.

So it was surprising to see the mayor allege that the information on our site “has no guidelines or procedures for reporting,” in addition to claiming that the cost of benefits is mistakenly reported as base pay — a demonstrably false claim that can be dispelled in the 5 seconds it takes to visit the website.

More troubling than the mayor’s poorly executed “smear the messenger” campaign, however, were his comments regarding the pay raises provided to city staff. In 2014, the city commissioned a study to compare the compensation it offered for various positions to the levels found at 10 neighboring city governments.

The study found that the average Madera job classification paid 4 percent less in total compensation than the middle-point (median) of the cities surveyed.

The mayor described the city’s response to this study as follows:

We agreed to meet the market median or in the middle of the comparison (median) when looking at the combined value of pay and benefits.

Some positions received a small increase while others were given a greater increase to meet the market median. Some didn’t receive a market adjustment at all.

As will be discussed later, the study was fundamentally biased in favor of higher pay and, even ignoring that, failed to justify the pay raises provided.

But in a commentary ostensibly designed to set the record straight about pay increases at Madera, the mayor badly misleads residents by omitting a key fact: the city didn’t merely increase salaries to meet the market median, they also provided an additional 11 percent pay raise in addition to and on top of that!

The Mayor’s omission of this point is particularly glaring given this additional raise occurred at the exact same time as the increase to the market median, as shown below:

unionmm

This cumulative 11 percent raise on top of the increase to the market median can be found in every union contract that the mayor and the rest of city council approved, as well as in the most recent budget. In fact, other than the mayor’s commentary from last week, there does not appear to be any reference to the market median increase that does not also immediately, and in literally the very next sentence, reference the additional raises provided.

As will be shown below, there is little compelling evidence to justify the pay increase to the market median on its own. But the 11 percent raise on top of that is particularly indefensible, something the mayor appears to recognize by his conspicuous omission of that fact.

Methodologically flawed study

There is no economically valid justification for conducting a salary comparison that is restricted to only other governments. While this is appropriate for the few government-specific jobs like police and fire employees, there is no legitimate basis for comparing the pay for common jobs like an administrative assistant, accountant, engineer, human resources staff, payroll specialists, secretaries, etc. exclusively to other governments. And precisely because California government workers already, on average, earn up to 30% more than their equally-skilled counterparts in the private-sector, such an analysis is guaranteed to only further that disparity.

Determining whether compensation is at an appropriate level should be informed by whether an agency is able to adequately attract and retain staff. As the mayor points out, the city has had no problem retaining employees, with the average management employee having been with the city for 14 years — hardly a sign of constant turnover and an inability to fill positions at the previous salary level.

And while it may sound reasonable to increase pay to the middle of the (poorly defined) market, it is worth emphasizing the obvious mathematical necessity that not everyone can be at the middle, and that half of all agencies surveyed must be below the middle.

It is precisely because of government agencies’ misguided desire to be at the middle of an arbitrary and misleading salary survey, along with the absence of the cost restraints found in the private sector, that public pay continues to rise.

For example, Madera’s recent pay increase now moves the median benchmark that much higher. As the now comparatively lower ranked agencies seek to match the recently-increased median, their efforts will also boost the median higher, thus perpetuating an ever-increasing race to the top, with only the degree to which taxpayers can bear this burden serving as the ultimate backstop.

Madera poorest of all cities surveyed

Even setting aside the issues raised above, the prudent response to the city-commissioned study, particularly in light of the city’s financial woes, was to simply do nothing.

As shown below, Madera, when measured on a variety of metrics, is the poorest of all the cities surveyed in the study.

City Average household income City Median workers’ earnings City Per capita income
Clovis $85,195 Clovis $34,552 Clovis $29,876
Manteca $75,246 Manteca $31,610 Turlock $24,582
Turlock $69,487 Hanford $31,508 Manteca $24,532
Hanford $68,098 Turlock $29,455 Lodi $24,267
Lodi $67,605 Tulare $27,202 Hanford $23,300
Ceres $64,587 Lodi $27,159 Fresno $20,141
Tulare $60,301 Ceres $24,264 Ceres $18,715
Fresno $60,242 Fresno $23,899 Tulare $18,707
Merced $55,940 Merced $23,207 Merced $18,415
Porterville $54,148 Porterville $21,439 Porterville $16,319
Madera $51,893 Madera $20,749 Madera $15,131
Average $66,085 Average $27,430 Average $21,885
Madera vs Avg -21% Madera vs Avg -24% Madera vs Avg -31%
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2012-2016 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, Selected Economic Characteristics

Thus, a finding that Madera’s average job pays 4 percent less in total compensation than its much richer neighbors is hardly a compelling reason for an across-the-board pay increase, and the corresponding burden such an increase imposes on area residents.

Given Madera has forecasted a multi-million dollar general fund shortfall that gets larger in each of the next 5 years, alongside a nearly 70 percent increase in pension costs, the city’s recklessness couldn’t have come at a worse time.

Yes, several Madera jobs paid less than what their neighboring, richer governments paid. The fact that Madera had no trouble filling these jobs makes clear that their previous compensation levels were more than adequate. Nonetheless, if even the very poorest city surveyed is unwilling to be one of those who must be in the bottom half of a salary survey, who will?

True size of the FY2015 pay raise

By comparing the just-released FY2017 salary schedule against the FY2014 salaries in place at the time of the study, we can measure the total impact of the pay raises approved at the start of FY2015 — which include the immediate increase to the market median plus an immediate 5 percent increase on top of that, plus an additional 3 percent increase in both FY2016 and FY2017.

In the summer of 2015, after learning that the average Madera city job paid 4 percent less in total compensation than the market median, the Madera City Council approved a series of pay raises that would provide an average 20 percent increase in base salary over the next three years. A complete table showing the cumulative pay raise for each classification can be found in Appendix I.

In aggregate, we estimate that this cumulative 20 percent pay raise will result in $1.372 million in additional annual salary costs, which totals $1.835 million when including the corresponding increase in retirement costs that accompany any salary increase.

How does Madera compensation compare now?              

As a result of these newly-increased salaries, total compensation for Madera jobs range from 2 percent above the market median to as much as 28 percent above for the city administrator. The average job went from being 4 percent below the market median to more than 8 percent above it. See Appendix II for the complete table.

There are two caveats to this finding. First, it does not factor in any increases that might have occurred at the comparator cities. Thus, it is likely that this would reduce the compensation premium reported if the assumedly higher 2017 salaries of the comparator cities were used.

Second, when calculating the value of benefits, we simply adopted the static dollar values used in the original study. But because higher salaries translate to higher retirement benefits, the value of benefits will increase correspondingly. Properly accounting for this would increase the compensation premium received for Madera employees.

We have not corrected for these two, slightly off-setting variables, as the purpose of Appendix II is to merely get a sense of the size of the cumulative, one-time increase approved in 2015, rather than providing a perfectly up to date comparison.

Conclusion

Madera’s general fund is expected to be in the red for each of the next 5 years, with a forecasted annual deficit that rises from $1.7 million in FY2018 to $3.9 million by FY2023. Over that same time period, the city’s estimated annual pension costs will rise from $5.1 million to $8.5 million.

The effects of the cumulative average 20 percent salary increase approved in FY2015 will be felt twice, with the higher salaries generating a corresponding increase in pension costs. In total, we estimate the FY2015 raise will cost the city an additional $1.835 million annually.

While it is fairly common for governments to provide pay raises by employing the seemingly reasonable, albeit profoundly flawed, approach of paying the “market median,” Madera went beyond that by granting all employees an additional 11 percent pay increase above and beyond the increase to the market median.

Madera residents deserve elected officials who are both responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars and transparent with their constituents. By voting for such an excessive and unwarranted pay raise, and then providing the public with misleading and incomplete information, the mayor, in this instance at least, appears to have failed on both accounts.

 


Appendix I

Cumulative salary increases for Madera job classifications from FY15-17

Job Title % increase (FY15-17)
Fleet Operations Manager 44%
Electrician III 44%
Director of Community Development 43%
City Clerk 39%
Deputy City Clerk 36%
City Attorney 34%
Director of Human Resources 33%
Public Works Maintenance Worker II 31%
Director of Parks & Community Services 31%
Water System Technician 30%
Waste Water Treatment Plant Manager 29%
City Administrator 27%
Parks Worker II 27%
Plans Examiner 26%
Administrative Analyst 26%
Public Works Operations Director 24%
Network Administrator 23%
Combination Building Inspector 22%
Financial Services Manager 22%
Information Services Manager 22%
Animal Control Officer 22%
Chief Building Official 21%
Accountant II 21%
Facilities Maintenance Technician 20%
Water System Supervisor 20%
Associate Planner 19%
Wastewater Collection System Supervisor 18%
Construction Inspector II 17%
Accounting Technician II 17%
Payroll Specialist 17%
Mechanic II 16%
Assistant Engineer 15%
Director of Financial Services 15%
Recreation/Community Programs Coordinator 15%
Park Planning Manager 15%
Engineering Technician II 14%
Police Sergeant 14%
Administrative Assistant 14%
Office Assistant II 14%
Computer Technician 14%
Police Chief 14%
Public Safety Dispatcher 14%
Program Manager-Grants 13%
Planning Manager 13%
City Engineer 12%
Records Clerk 11%
Assistant Planner 11%
Police Officer II 11%
Recreation/Community Programs Manager 11%
Deputy City Engineer 11%
Water System Worker II 11%
Human Resources Technician II 11%
Engineering Project Manager 11%
Neighborhood Preservation Specialist II 11%
Police Office Supervisor 11%
Building Permit Technician 11%
Police Commander 11%
Utility Billing Supervisor 11%
Water Quality Specialist II 11%
Parks Supervisor 11%
Senior Planner 11%
Public Works Maintenance Worker IV 11%
Average 20%

 

Appendix II

Total FY2017 compensation for Madera job classifications as a percentage of FY2015 Market Median

Job Title Madera compensation as % of median after FY15 raise
City Administrator 128%
Engineering Project Manager 124%
Senior Planner 117%
Recreation/Community Programs Manager 117%
Water Quality Specialist II 117%
Assistant Planner 116%
Water System Worker II 116%
Police Commander 116%
Neighborhood Preservation Specialist II 115%
Records Clerk 114%
Utility Billing Supervisor 113%
Deputy City Engineer 113%
Public Works Maintenance Worker IV 112%
Building Permit Technician 110%
Director of Parks & Community Services 110%
Police Office Supervisor 109%
City Engineer 109%
Planning Manager 108%
Director of Financial Services 108%
Human Resources Technician II 108%
Parks Supervisor 108%
Police Officer II 108%
Chief Building Official 108%
Information Services Manager 107%
Public Works Operations Director 107%
Park Planning Manager 107%
Program Manager-Grants 107%
City Attorney 107%
Computer Technician 107%
Assistant Engineer 106%
Engineering Technician II 106%
Police Sergeant 106%
Director of Human Resources 106%
Administrative Assistant 106%
Public Safety Dispatcher 106%
Construction Inspector II 106%
Associate Planner 106%
Wastewater Collection System Supervisor 106%
Mechanic II 106%
Recreation/Community Programs Coordinator 106%
Financial Services Manager 106%
Animal Control Officer 106%
Office Assistant II 106%
Director of Community Development 106%
Water System Supervisor 105%
City Clerk 105%
Accountant II 105%
Payroll Specialist 105%
Network Administrator 105%
Accounting Technician II 105%
Combination Building Inspector 105%
Facilities Maintenance Technician 105%
Plans Examiner 105%
Administrative Analyst 105%
Waste Water Treatment Plant Manager 104%
Water System Technician 104%
Parks Worker II 103%
Public Works Maintenance Worker II 103%
Deputy City Clerk 103%
Fleet Operations Manager 102%
Police Chief 102%
Electrician III 102%
Average 108%

Lack of penalties allows San Diego Unified to disregard state’s public records law

As long as government employees are free to violate the state’s public records law with impunity, Californians will continue to be denied the fully transparent government promised to them under state law.

While California’s Public Records Act declares that governmental transparency is a “fundamental and necessary right of every person in this state,” the realization of this promise is severely undercut by the lack of any penalty for government officials who blatantly violate the law.

As a result, some agencies are comfortable ignoring the law entirely, adopting what can only be described as a “well, sue us” mentality.

This was the tactic employed by the Los Angeles County West Vector Control District — a local government funded through a supplemental fee included on residents’ property tax bill.

Beginning in 2014, TransparentCalifornia.com requested the district’s pay data as part of its effort to populate the site with the salaries of every government employee in the state.

Despite state law mandating a response within 10 days of its receipt, the district ignored the request and numerous follow-ups for years. Remarkably, even a certified mail letter warning of imminent legal action failed to elicit a response from the district.

It was only after a lawsuit was filed did the district finally acknowledge the request — at which point they provided all of the requested data just a few days after the suit was filed.

But shouldn’t the right to a transparent government apply to all Californians, and not just those with the time and resources to pursue costly litigation?

And it’s not just the smaller agencies who behave this way, even the massive San Diego Unified School District routinely flouts the provision of the law that requires “prompt” disclosure of public records.

Take Transparent California’s most recent request for salary data from the district as an example.

On June 12, the District replied and asserted that they would need approximately three months’ time in order to provide the requested information.

Yet the file that was ultimately provided was marked as being created and last modified on June 6 — indicating it had been in the school’s possession the entire time! An inquiry asking if it was normal policy for the school to delay production of readily available, existing records for nearly three months went unanswered.

In addition to violating the law, such unjustified delays are particularly troubling given the District’s recent adoption of a policy whereby it deletes all emails after only a year — creating a scenario where potentially responsive records could be deleted and withheld from a requester, purely as a result of the school’s habitually delayed response time.

Sadly, examples of governments flouting the mandates of California’s Public Records Act are much greater than the few mentioned here, which is why Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, sponsored AB1479 last session.

The bill would have allowed a court to impose a penalty of between $1,000 and $5,000 — paid directly to the requester — when a government unlawfully denied access to public records. While the fees were far too small to be a truly effective deterrent, it was still a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, despite having passed the Assembly by a 71-1 landslide, lobbying by government unions led to the bill’s functional demise in the Senate, where every word of the penalty provision was erased.

If the promise of a truly transparent government is ever to be realized, the Legislature has only one path forward: adopt the same approach for how private citizens are treated and impose penalties on those who violate the law.

In North Carolina, government employees who knowingly violate the state’s public records law can be held personally liable for the requester’s legal fees — a mechanism which ensures that all residents receive the fully transparent and accountable government they are entitled to.

The California Legislature should adopt a similar provision here.

There’s always been something unsettling about granting public officials immunity from crimes and other wrongdoing — but the case for immunity is particularly weak when it comes to those who intentionally deny Californians their “fundamental and necessary right” of a transparent government.

Indeed, much of the justification for granting government the power of taxation is the notion that those funds are used to serve the public in both a transparent and accountable fashion. Allowing government employees to freely ignore their obligations in this regard threatens to undermine that entire edifice.

The California Legislature put together a nearly perfect public records law. Now it just needs to make sure it’s actually followed.

Robert Fellner is research director at TransparentCalifornia.com — the state’s largest public pay and pension database — where he has made or overseen more than 10,000 public records requests to over 2,500 unique California governments. A condensed version of this commentary was first published in the OC Register.