Mostly clear

Report: Sonoma County appears to have not fully met law in hiking pensions

Sonoma County officials appear to have not fully met a public notice requirement when they approved enhanced pensions for county employees a decade ago, an inquiry by county attorneys has found.

The finding, contained in a report going before the county Board of Supervisors today, sides with an allegation advanced in July by the county grand jury.

But the apparent procedural flaw isn't enough to invalidate the pensions received by 1,000 county retirees and the benefits promised to thousands of current workers, the attorneys said.

Those benefits are vested rights with strong legal protections, regardless of any procedural errors in their adoption, they said.

The conclusion takes on the key question of the grand jury, which asked in its report whether the 2002 pension increases were legal. The question arose from a complaint filed by a pension system critic who has alleged that the past Board of Supervisors did not follow various legal requirements when it authorized the more generous benefits.

The critic, Santa Rosa winemaker Ken Churchill, contends the alleged missteps could be grounds for rolling back the higher pension formulas.

He called the report from the County Counsel's Office "incomplete" and suggested other attorneys could find justification to reverse the pension decisions on procedural grounds.

"We asked for an independent investigation," Churchill said. "That wasn't done."

The investigation by the County Counsel's Office included a supporting document from Steptoe and Johnson, a Washington legal firm with expertise in public pension issues.

The review by county and private attorneys found most of the grand jury's claims were in error, based on laws added in recent years and not in place at the time the pensions were changed.

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