The public’s right to know how its money is spent collided with an individual’s right to privacy when the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) announced two weeks ago that it plans to post pension information online about its 500,000 retirees.
The database was scheduled to go live the week after the announcement but an outcry from retirees and talk of a lawsuit gave CalPERS officials pause and they delayed releasing the information. The $260-billion retirement system administers pension benefits for 1.6 million state and local government workers and their families.
Governor Jerry Brown’s administration has taken heat over the years for “reforms” that would make it harder for the public to learn about the actions of its government. Last month, state lawmakers reluctantly abandoned plans to gut the California Public Records Act by refusing to reimburse local entities for giving the public access to records and help in obtaining them.
But in posting personal information about public employees, the state seemingly found a cause for transparency that it could get behind. The website would allow easy access to retirees’ names, their retirement allowances and other public pension information through a searchable database.
It’s the kind of database long sought, but still not available, for tracking lobbyist contributions.
Although CalPERS members make the argument that posting the information online presents a threat to older people who are susceptible to scams and identity theft, the proposal also raises basic privacy issues that butt heads with the public’s right to know where the money goes.
The information that would be included in the database is already available to the public, at least to those people who are willing to file a formal request for specific information and pay a small fee. The information is already public, and has been used by journalists to uncover important stories. It’s just not that public.
Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hilzik argues that making the information too readily available could have a boomerang effect by energizing people to seek even more secrecy surrounding public information. He notes that CalPERS put the database on hold while groups lobby the Legislature to pass a law making pension information more private.
Hilzik cites privacy experts who tout “privacy by obscurity” as a safeguard, but also points out that the Internet, where everything that can be posted seems to be posted, has put a big dent in its practical application.
One retiree whose pension is very public is Bruce Malkenhorst, who was slated to receive $500,000 annually for his 29-year tenure in the tiny Southern California city of Vernon. It would have been the largest pension paid by CalPERS, but after the Vernon city manager left his $911,000-a-year job and was convicted of misappropriating public funds, the system slashed his pension to $115,000.
The 78-year-old Malkenhorst is suing Vernon to make up the difference, because even if CalPERS thinks the city veteran wasn’t entitled to the money, Vernon used to think he was. Malkenhorst, who retired in 2005, was already the state’s highest paid official in the 1980s—he made $169,000 in 1989.