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.
But the report did find some merit to one claim.
According to the report, no records exist to show that the Board of Supervisors gave the public a chance to review and comment on the financial effect of the enhanced benefits at a meeting at least two weeks before their adoption, as required by law.
The attorneys said while the county may have fallen short of "full compliance," it still achieved "substantial compliance" because of other related public meetings held during the period.
Those included six Board of Supervisors meetings from mid-2002 to mid-2003 that dealt with labor contracts and preliminary votes on enhanced pensions and four other meetings before county supervisors and the county retirement board dealing with related pension matters.
Churchill has suggested the procedural flaws were deliberate. Under little public scrutiny at the time, county officials and consultants vastly underestimated the cost of the enhanced benefits for taxpayers, he said. Since 2000, those costs are up 400 percent, records show.
"Why was the public kept in the dark? I think they did not want to set off any alarms," Churchill said.
County Counsel Bruce Goldstein said he found no evidence in interviews or records that county staff, elected officials or others involved tried to hide financial information connected to the pension changes.
"Was it as transparent as it should have been? No," said Shirlee Zane, chairwoman of the current Board of Supervisors.
The board, now with only one member, Valerie Brown, who was serving in 2002 when the first pension votes occurred, is set to recommend tighter public notice checks as part of its grand jury response.
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