CalPERS hits the road

The 13-member CalPERS board is holding a four-day meeting in Petaluma this week — one of three monthly board meetings held each year away from the headquarters in Sacramento.

Out-of-town meetings can look like junkets.

The CalPERS board could, one might suspect, be holding a quarter of its meetings on the road to live large on the giant public pension fund’s tab, a perk that makes up in some way for serving with little or no salary.

But that’s not the case, says the California Public Employees Retirement System.

The “off-site” board meetings in January and July are strategy sessions, a chance for board members to step back and look at issues and ideas. Gathered in one hotel, board members can relax and talk informally among themselves and with top staff.

One of the regular board meetings, where decisions are made, is held on the road in October to make the board more accessible to CalPERS members and the public. In recent years, these meetings have been in San Luis Obispo, Fresno and Redding.

Cost is no object, in so far as CalPERS has not determined whether it spends more for board meetings on the road than at its headquarters.

Road meeting costs are spread among various departments in the $332 million CalPERS administrative budget, and there has been no tally of the total or comparison with meeting costs at the headquarters, said Pat Macht, the CalPERS spokeswoman.

“I would have to look at the fine line,” Rob Feckner, the CalPERS board president, said at the Petaluma meeting. “But I would say it’s either cost neutral or a cost benefit. Folks aren’t flying into Sacramento. We had some that just drove up from the Bay Area.”

Petaluma Sheraton

Petaluma Sheraton

A travel web site says rates at the Sheraton in Petaluma average $171 a night. CalPERS may have received a lower government rate. But more than a dozen staff members are staying at the Sheraton, an expense not needed for headquarters meetings.

Feckner said the off-site strategy sessions in January and July serve an important purpose for the board. He said there isn’t time at regular board meetings to talk in depth about issues and plans for the future.

“Those monthly board meetings are very arduous,” Feckner said. “We start on a Friday and we don’t end until a Wednesday. And some of those days go from 7:30 in the morning until 9 o’clock at night.”

Charles Valdes, who has served on the CalPERS board for two decades, said the pension fund’s off-site strategy meetings are similar to the way “corporate America” holds meetings and retreats away from the office.

“You want to sit down and really do think tank stuff — get all of your advisers to say, ’You should do this, you’re not doing that,’” said Valdes. “The idea is to have this collective thing. We get together for group activities and group activities.”

Valdes said he had met a new CalPERS board member, Pat Clary, at lunch and hoped to talk to her again later in the day. Clary, a former chief of staff for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, is the State Personnel Board representative on the CalPERS board.

Petaluma is located north of San Francisco on Highway 101. The early Sonoma County settlement has a building dating back to 1836 and about 55,000 current residents. Running through the city is the Petaluma River, large enough for recreational and barge traffic.

Petaluma once was the “egg capitol of the world” because of its poultry industry. In memorable wordplay from the late San Francisco Chronicle columnist, Herb Caen: You can tune a piano, but you can’t tuna fish. You can pet a dog, but you can’t Petaluma.

On Tuesday in Petaluma, the CalPERS board interviewed several candidates for chief investment officer and chose Joseph Dear, executive director of the Washington State Investment Board.

The agenda Wednesday was closed sessions in the morning for personnel and investment matters, then a public session in the afternoon on market reforms. The agenda Thursday is health issues, followed Friday by closed sessions on contracts and personnel.

The other large public pension fund based in Sacramento, the California State Teachers Retirement System, holds “one annual off-site meeting for strategic planning purposes,” said Ricardo Duran, a CalSTRS spokesman.

Neither CalPERS nor CalSTRS, with their large administration budgets, have joined the growing number of government agencies that broadcast their meetings over the Internet.

Among the California government agencies offering comprehensive webcasts of their meetings are the California Public Utilities Commission and the City of Los Angeles. Some nonprofits and private firms offer government webcast services.

The issue of whether CalSTRS, which plans to move into a new building wired for webcasts later this year, should provide public Internet broadcasts of its activities came up at the last board meeting, drawing a mixed reaction.

“I would be most reluctant to have streaming video outside of the building,” said Roger Kozberg, a board member from Beverly Hills. He said video snippets can be taken out of context.

“I know there are many people in my office who would like to watch this,” said Bettina Redway, representing state Treasurer Bill Lockyer at the meeting. The CalSTRS board delayed a decision on the webcast issue.

At CalPERS, the issue of whether board meetings should be webcast is “something we are continuing to evaluate,” said spokeswoman Macht.

Feckner’s remark about “arduous” board work echoed a point made at the CalSTRS meeting. For members who want to make informed decisions, just going through the detailed staff memos on some complex agenda items is no small task.

“It’s a tremendous honor to be on this board, but it’s also a sacrifice,” said Harry Keiley, a high school teacher in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.

Keiley asked the staff for a comparison of salaries and reimbursements for board members at similar pension funds, including CalPERS. The CalSTRS staff is preparing a report, said spokesman Duran.

At CalPERS and CalSTRS, board members who do not work for government agencies receive $100 a day for meetings in addition to expenses. The pension funds reimburse government agencies for the time their employees spend on board work.

Reporter Ed Mendel covered the Capitol in Sacramento for nearly three decades, most recently for the San Diego Union-Tribune. More stories are at 22 Jan 09

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