UC administration fails the transparency test

Marc Joffe

Climb into a time machine with me and voyage back to Dec. 8, 2016. A slightly younger Barack H. Obama is still the nation’s president. Four weeks after his electoral shock therapy, President-elect Donald Trump has just been named Time magazine’s Person of the Year.

And the California Policy Center has filed a state public records request for data about payments to University of California retirees.

The request should take 10 days to satisfy. Instead, it will six months for the University of California to comply. And now we know why.

After stalling for months, on May 3 the UC system finally turned over the pension data. It reveals that 25 UC retirees are receiving more than $300,000 a year in pension and benefits.
News of the egregious public spending couldn’t come at a worse time for the University of California. Last month, a state audit exposed the UC system for hiding a $175 million slush fund from the public and its own regents while hiking tuition costs by 2.5% – the first time it had raised tuition since 2011. Somewhere, PR reps from the University of California, United Airlines and Pepsi are exchanging research on the best places for a silent retreat.

Acquiring the data should have been easier. The California Public Records Act, in sections 6250-6270.5 of the California Government Code, “declares that access to information concerning the conduct of the people’s business is a fundamental and necessary right of every person in this state.” Section 6253c states gives the agency 10 days to determine whether the records requested are indeed public. “In unusual circumstances,” that section reads, “the time limit prescribed in this section may be extended by written notice by the head of the agency or his or her designee to the person making the request, setting forth the reasons for the extension and the date on which a determination is expected to be dispatched. No notice shall specify a date that would result in an extension for more than 14 days.”

So, in other words, if a member of the public asks for a data dump from a government agency’s computer system – such as a list of retired employees and how much each receives in pension benefits – the agency should provide that data in less than a month.

The clock started ticking on December 8, 2016, when I emailed the UC Office of the President (pra@ucop.edu) asking “to obtain, in electronic form, a list of retired employees and beneficiaries of deceased employees receiving benefits from the University of California Retirement System in calendar year 2015. I ask that the list include each employee’s name, final job title, pension amount, value of additional benefits received, years of service and year of retirement.”

On December 16, 2016 (within the 10-day window), UCOP responded, “Records identified as responsive to your request will be reviewed, and made available for your access, in accordance with relevant law and University policy. The estimated date of production is eight weeks (emphasis added).”

Eight weeks seemed excessive, but we decided to be patient.

On February 23, 2017 – a little more than eight weeks later – we heard back from UC, with what amounted to a rejection of our request. They provided pension information for the years 2012, 2013 and 2014 that they had previously given to Transparent California, the online database we co-founded. But UCOP refused to provide the information for 2015. UCOP’s email message stated:

Please note that in the past, the University elected to create some custom reports when the requested data was not available in an off-the-shelf report and/or could not be created via a simple data query. This includes the data (attached) that was initially compiled for Transparent California. … Due to limited staff/resources, the University is no longer electing to do the programming required to create certain custom reports, such as the data you have requested. The courts have ruled that public entities have no duty to create a record that does not exist at the time of the request.

Given the State Auditor’s revelations of slush funds and excessive spending at UCOP, the assertion of “limited staff/resourcing” is hard to accept.

Further, how difficult should it be to produce a list of retirees and pension payments from the university’s payroll systems? Since (we assume) the pension checks are computer generated, the systems should have the required data and it should be easily retrievable.

But given the problems UC is experiencing with its payroll systems, perhaps it is not so easy after all. Last month, the Sacramento Bee reported that an upgrade to the University’s payroll systems was way over budget and well behind schedule. The project, known as UCPath, is intended to replace 11 antiquated systems with a single platform. According to the Bee, UCPath has cost $327 million to date and is now projected to cost a total of $504 million by the time it is fully implemented in late 2018. The State Auditor found that well-compensated UCOP staff were overseeing the project, noting:

CSU’s chief financial officer—whose annual salary was $70,000 less than the university’s chief financial officer’s salary in fiscal year 2014–15—is in charge of the business and finance division, whose mission includes management of IT services. Although the Office of the President’s chief financial officer has some IT duties, such as serving as an executive sponsor on the UCPath project—the university’s replacement payroll and human resources system—the Office of the President also has an executive serving as vice president of information technology who performs these duties and who received a salary rate of $345,100 in fiscal year 2014–15.

Whatever UCOP’s rationale, we believe the public has a right to know how much retired public employees make. So we asked CPC General Counsel Craig Alexander to demand a better response from UCOP. At one point, I offered to visit the UCOP office in Oakland to review paystubs of just the 50 or so highest-paid retirees.

Ultimately, UCOP decided to fulfill our request with a spreadsheet containing a list of new retirees in 2015 and 2016, as well as a list of those who received benefits in 2014 but who had subsequently passed away.  They originally planned to get us the data by the end of April, but ultimately delivered it on May 3. From this information, we pieced together our findings about retirees making more than $300,000 which viewers saw on KPIX and other CBS affiliates last week.

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