At least three board members overseeing underfunded municipal retirement systems in California have scrapped plans to attend a conference in Hawaii even as conference organizers defended the gathering after a recent California Watch report revealed that some pension funds planned to send as many as five board members each at public expense.
Conference organizers also removed from their website a “2013 Attendance Justification Tool Kit,” which suggested that pension trustees rationalize their attendance at the conference as a way to network and boost their pension funds.
The moves follow a Feb. 27 story by California Watch, which reported that four of the state’s 24 largest independent municipal retirement systems intended to send board members to the conference in Waikiki in May. The plans collectively are grappling with a multibillion-dollar shortfall for pension benefits owed to current and future retirees.
Board members who canceled their trips last week include Debora Allen and Jerry Telles from the Contra Costa County Employees’ Retirement Association and Herman Santos, chairman of the Board of Investments for the Los Angeles County Employees Retirement Association.
Telles and Santos did not return calls seeking comment on why they decided not to attend the conference after all. Trustees from the Los Angeles City Employees’ Retirement System and the San Diego County Employees Retirement Association did not return several calls and emails to determine whether they still plan to attend. Attendance will cost $2,600 or more per trustee, by some estimates.
“I didn’t see the full agenda before I volunteered to go,” said Allen, adding that when she reviewed the agenda last week, she decided it was not worth the system’s money to attend.
Richard Cabral, also from the Contra Costa County Employees’ Retirement Association, said he still plans to attend the conference to network.
Santos, an attorney in the Los Angeles County public defender’s office, canceled his trip the day after the story appeared to work on a trial scheduled during the week of the conference, said Gregg Rademacher, chief executive of the Los Angeles County Employees Retirement Association.
“Mr. Santos is a public defender and does his best to coordinate the judicial calendar with his retirement plan commitments,” Rademacher wrote in an email.
No fees were incurred as a result of the cancellations, officials in Contra Costa and Los Angeles counties said.
Hank Kim, executive director and counsel for the trade association organizing the national conference, did not return messages requesting comment.
But in an open letter posted Tuesday on the conference website, organizers defended their decision to gather money managers, consultants and pension administrators in Honolulu.
“Our current President grew up there,” the letter said, referring to President Barack Obama. In addition, organizers wrote, “Honolulu is as economical as it is beautiful. The cost of lodging and food is lower than in many places on the mainland, and airfares from anywhere in the U.S. are competitively priced.”
The letter continued:“Objecting to Honolulu because it has beautiful beaches – something you’ll also find in popular convention cities in California and Florida – is like objecting to New York because it has Broadway and Times Square or objecting to New Orleans because it has jazz clubs and great food.”
In an open letter “Continued and reasonable education is a small investment when compared to the increased value it provides to the $9 billion fund and our members,” officials wrote in the Feb. 27 letter.
Joe Nation, a professor of the practice of public policy at Stanford University, who researches public employee pensions, said traveling to Hawaii does not send the right message and praised the trustees who pulled out of the conference.“It’s better for everyone because it looked like a junket to me,” Nation said. “The point is for them to manage money and to run a system for retirees. If someone really wants to travel, they should be a flight attendant.”
View this story on California Watch
This story was produced by California Watch, a part of the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at www.californiawatch.org.