Sonoma County supervisors Tuesday unanimously endorsed a legal report disclosing that procedural errors were made a decade ago by county officials who adopted more generous pension formulas.
County officials failed to fully meet a requirement that would have given the public at least two weeks to review and comment on the financial impact of the pension increases before their adoption, a report by the Sonoma County Counsel's office found.
"There's no denying that the 100 percent letter of the law was not followed on this piece," said Supervisor David Rabbitt, commenting on the results of the inquiry by county attorneys.
Their report supported the Board of Supervisors' formal response to a July county grand jury report that raised allegations of procedural mistakes at the time of the benefit votes, between mid-2002 and mid-2003.
The grand jury's central question, one advanced by a local pension system critic, was whether the benefit increases were therefore legal.
County attorneys said they were, regardless of the apparent failure to meet the noticing requirement or any other procedural mistakes that might have occurred in connection with the Board of Supervisors' actions a decade ago. The higher benefits are now received by more than 1,000 county retirees and are promised to thousands more current workers.
Santa Rosa winemaker Ken Churchill, the pension system critic who raised the issue with the grand jury, assailed the pension decisions made by past members of the Board of Supervisors and called for a wider inquiry into the studies undertaken at that time. They vastly underestimated the cost of the higher benefits for taxpayers, Churchill noted. Those costs are now up 400 percent since 2000, records show.
"I just don't see where that money is going to come from and I don't see how we're going to avoid going into bankruptcy," said Churchill.
A group of government watchdogs he founded, called New Sonoma, has been looking into legal issues connected with the pension decisions. Churchill has not ruled out a legal challenge on the matter.
Supervisors praised the County Counsel's analysis and a supporting document from a Washington law firm specializing in pension issues, calling the inquiry "thorough" and "exhaustive."
"We could have done better in 2002," said Supervisor Mike McGuire, among the newer members of the board. Only Supervisor Valerie Brown was serving at the time the decisions were made.
The grand jury response approved Tuesday included an assurance to have tighter checks on public notice requirements linked to salary and benefit moves in the future.
"Going forward the board is committed to implementing the letter of the law," McGuire said.
You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@ pressdemocrat.com.