Jamie Butow

Monday, Jul 15 2013 02:29 PM

JAMIE BUTOW: Readers' double standard on pension data

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    Jamie Butow, Californian community engagement coordinator.

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By Jamie Butow

I'm taking a little break from writing about trends in social media to step on another one of my many soapboxes, a la Lois Henry. Don't worry, there is a social media element to it.

I want to talk about CalPERS' recent attempt to publish an online database of pensioners' names, their retirement allowances and other public pension information.

CalPERS is the California Public Employees' Retirement System. It's the $260 billion retirement system that administers pension benefits for 1.6 million government workers, including the City of Bakersfield and Kern County Superintendent of Schools employees.

If you are a public employee, your salary and pension data is already public information. I, or anyone else, can request it and it has to be released. That's how the California Public Records Act works.

The agency will omit your address, Social Security number, date of birth and other personal information.

In most cases, the information requested is name, job title, salary and possibly years on the job.

If you are a teacher or government employee, your salary is public information because it is paid by tax dollars.

This is not the case for employees of private companies such as The Californian, Chevron or Dewar's.

There seems to be a lot of confusion about this out there, evidenced by some of the Facebook comments we got after posting an article on Facebook.com/BakersfieldCalifornian last week.

You can stop buying ice cream at Dewar's, but you can't stop supporting government worker salaries and pensions (unless you stop paying your taxes, and good luck with that).

I say kudos to the administrators at CalPERS for attempting to do this.

Yes, attempting. Did I not mention this has been stopped by threat of a lawsuit? Because that's how we do things in this country.

Oh wait, it gets better.

Public employee groups are now seeking legislation to block disclosure of this information.

They want to change the law to not allow access to these public records.

What?

Access to records about salaries and pensions helped the Los Angeles Times expose corruption in the city of Bell, where officials were padding salaries and increasing their pension payoffs.

Making this data inaccessible makes it easier for this type of corruption to flourish.

Is that what everyone wants?

Of course, officers of public employee unions would prefer that watchdogs have less ability to track this information.

Retirees are worried that CalPERS was going to release their Social Security numbers. That was never part of the agency's proposal.

Access to pension information serves the public interest, and I'm unaware of an instance where it has harmed retirees or put them at risk.

In all the public records requests I've made in my years as a reporter and editor, I can't think of a single instance where I've requested or received anything more than name, job title and salary.

We've written numerous articles that included the salary of city and county staff, and readers are always commenting with their thoughts on their pay. Most of the time you think government employees are paid too much.

Reporters and editors include that information in articles because we know you care about it.

Readers routinely ask us how much the city and county are spending on law enforcement. In fact, you angrily demand it in many cases.

In 2010, reporters James Burger and Gretchen Wenner wrote about more than 175 local government retirees who pull in more than $100,000 in annual pension payments (Link available on Facebook.com/JamieButow2). All that information was obtained through public records requests.

The article garnered 45 comments, including these two:

"Very interesting article. I think the significant figure is median retirement pay. People are not getting rich from their county/city retirement pay."

"If The Californian is going to scrutinize public employees' pension, I hope the newspaper includes school administrators' pensions, including community college and state university pensions."

There was not a single comment decrying the printing of the information. In fact, a very healthy discussion ensued in the comments.

Yet, when the link to The Sacramento Bee article appeared on Facebook, the majority of the comments echoed these:

"Why should they be any different than anyone else-keep it private!"

"What would be a good reason to poke your noses into peoples private business? Why don't you leave hardworking people alone?"

So I ask, what's with the double-standard?

If CalPERS decides to drop its plan for an online database and continue its current system of providing pension data on request, fine. But this should not be a platform for public employee unions to change the public records act.

 

Social media classes

Social Media 101 and Social Media for Small Business and Organizations are both scheduled for the fall term at the Levan Institute for Lifelong Learning at Bakersfield College.

The schedule will be printed in The Californian, and available online at http://www.bc.cc.ca.us/levaninstitute on Sunday. That's also when registration opens.

 

Jamie Butow is the community engagement coordinator for The Bakersfield.com Network. Email her at JButow@bakersfield.com. Follow her at Facebook.com/JamieButow2, and on Twitter@JamieButow.

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