The CalSTRS board last week voted to begin live video Internet webcasts of its meetings, reversing earlier votes after an emotional debate in which two members paused at times, struggling to control their breaking voices.
It’s not a major issue, compared to deciding how to invest a fund now worth $140 billion. But video webcasts touched a nerve, producing a rare passionate disagreement in a 12-member board that often casts unanimous votes.
Last summer CalSTRS moved into a new $265 million high-rise building equipped with video cameras in the board room. Live video of meetings is sent to computers in the building, but only live audio has been available on the Internet.
A number of state agencies, county boards of supervisors and city councils routinely webcast meetings. Videos of the meetings are archived and can be viewed over the Internet at any time.
A California State Teachers Retirement System staff report said informal checks at conferences found only one large pension fund that webcasts meetings, the Texas teachers system.
The report said a CalSTRS switch to live video webcasts “may set a high standard of transparency that pressures other funds to follow” during a time of increased interest in revealing government operations to the public.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger launched a website last year, www.transparency.ca.gov, that lists information about administration managers: their statement of economic interests, travel expenses, salaries and pensions.
Last month the California Public Employees Retirement System announced “another step to expand transparency.” Its website now posts the statements of economic interest and travel expenses of board members and key staff members.
CalPERS does not make electronic recordings of its board meetings, neither audio nor video. Instead, a written transcript, manually recorded court-reporter style, is available to the public on request.
In its previous building, video recordings of CalSTRS board meetings were provided to the public on DVD discs if requested. The same policy has been followed at the new building.
Supply has no trouble meeting demand. During the past year, said the staff report, DVD recordings of meetings were requested by only 11 different parties, each just one time. Audio log-ins peaked at 26 for a committee meeting, 10 for a board meeting.
Last week the CalSTRS board appeared to be moving toward a continuation of the policy. Chairwoman Jerilyn Harris proposed delaying a discussion of the webcasting item on the agenda until February and a vote until next fall.
But Cynthia Bryant, representing the Schwarzenegger administration’s finance department, made an emotional plea for webcasting board meetings. She said she serves on two other boards that are required by state law to webcast their meetings.
“It serves the stakeholders who are interested in the process,” Bryant said. “I cannot fathom a reason why this board would not want to be transparent and broadcast meetings to the public.”
She said CalSTRS, which is underfunded, is planning to launch an “extremely important” drive for increased contributions. Unlike most public pension funds. CalSTRS cannot set contribution rates paid by employers, needing legislation instead.
“I’m so mad … I’m very angry,” Bryant said, pausing briefly. She said teachers need to know what their retirement system is doing, and the board should be “proud” rather than “ashamed” of its actions.
“I was shocked that my predecessor was part of the reason we didn’t go forward on it,” Bryant said. “In this era of open government and in this era of trying to create trust with the people we serve, I see no reason to delay with this decision.”
Bryant’s predecessor from the finance department, Tom Sheehy, made a motion last fall to continue live audio webcasting, approved on a 10-to-1 vote.
At the same meeting, a motion to begin live video, made by representatives of Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell and state Treasurer Bill Lockyer, failed on a 4-to-7 vote.
How the individual board members voted is not listed in the minutes of the meeting in October last year at Huntington Beach. The board holds an annual retreat-style “off site” meeting away from the West Sacramento headquarters.
The proposal by chairwoman Harris last week would have delayed a vote on live video until next fall at the off-site meeting, which is not recorded.
After Bryant spoke, Lockyer’s representative, Grant Boykin, said he should have spoken earlier to express the treasurer’s “strong” support for live video webcasts and transparency.
Board member Peter Reinke, seconding Boykin’s remarks about not speaking up quickly, said he has long supported live video of board meetings, a public service he is familiar with from his time on a commission in Oakland.
State Controller John Chiang’s representative, Terry McGuire, said the controller, after being assured the cost would be negligible, supports “full transparency.” Board Member Carolyn Widener said she would like to hear from webcast opponents.
Board member Dana Dillon, a former board chairwoman, matched Bryant’s intensity as she argued against live video of meetings. She said the list of “cons” in the staff report outweighs the “pros.”
“I don’t think if we don’t broadcast live that we are not being transparent,” Dillon said. “Everything we do is taped. It’s recorded. It’s available for the public. So I think we still have that transparency.”
Dillon said she was concerned that live video would encourage “grandstanding,” playing to the audience. She said experts might be less likely to give the board an “honest opinion” if they are on camera.
“I think it’s really important that people come to us, see our interaction live,” Dillon said, “because it’s a much more valuable experience … It’s not not wanting to be transparent … (long pause) … And God knows, why would I want to broadcast this?”
The remark broke the tension and drew a big laugh from her colleagues and the audience.
“There are people in this audience that I hope continue to come to these meetings and interact with us personally, instead of sitting in the office or at home and watching it on their computer,” Dillon said later. “There is more to it than just the person who is speaking.”
Board member Harry Keiley, “in hope of building support or consensus around this issue,” supported Dillon’s suggestion that live video of the appeals committee, where personal information is aired, be delayed for six months in a trial period.
Bryant included the appeals committee delay as a “friendly amendment” to her motion to begin webcasts with live video. The motion passed 7-to-2 with Dillon and Harris opposed.
Three members were absent: Kathy Brugger, Roger Kozberg and Beth Rogers. At the off-site meeting last fall, Kozberg seconded Sheehy’s motion to continue webcasts with audio only.
Reporter Ed Mendel covered the Capitol in Sacramento for nearly three decades, most recently for the San Diego Union-Tribune. More stories are at https://calpensions.com/ Posted 8 Nov 10