CalPERS Candidate Forum

As some of you may know, during the last 25 years I’ve run for the CalPERS Board more than anyone, raising issues like gifts, placement agents and generally fighting for higher ethical standards. For years, I tried to get elections regulated by the Fair Political Practices Commission and covered by newspapers.

I recall testifying in the State Senate that Board members shouldn’t be allowed to accept gifts from those that do business with CalPERS. One of the Senators leaned over and said something like, “I’d bet you don’t think I should be taking gifts either, do you?” “That’s right,” I told him.

I was against gifts in either sphere but at CalPERS it was worse. At least the Senate disclosed its votes, so you could potentially track a reported gift and try to gauge if it had any influence. At CalPERS they had never released the minutes of closed door sessions, until about the day of that hearing, so you could never measure the corrupting influence of gifts.

One of the elections I was involved in was very contentious. I had accused the incumbent of ethical improprieties… nothing illegal, but behavior which many would would see as on the borderline. Back then, as I recall, candidates only got 100 words in the ballot and a short rebuttal, after seeing what other candidates had written. That’s the only information that went to all the voters. No papers have ever really provided significant coverage, so the only other information voters generally saw was in the form of ads, usually in the form of postcards from their union, reminding them who to vote for. I was one of the first to take out newspaper ads.

Board members didn’t like being criticized in the short ballot statements, so they proposed banning criticism by limiting campaign statements to brief factual statements about the candidate making the statements. Finally, the press got involved. The Sacramento Bee wrote a scathing editorial, CalPERS muzzles critics: Ballot rules protect board, keep others in the dark.

Although substantial progress has been made in addressing ethical issues, these elections, for some of the most powerful positions in the world, still don’t get much scrutiny. The press would rather take pot shots from the side than get involved in vetting candidates before they are elected.

A few years ago, I changed tactics and decided to sponsor candidate forums. If I couldn’t get on the Board myself, maybe I could improve the quality of the candidate pool by getting them to discuss the issues in a public forum before they are elected. It seems a useful idea for candidates to other various offices.

With help from the League of Women Voters of Sacramento County, we held the first in 2009 at a rented hall. Aside from the candidates, we probably had an audience of about 25… and that may be generous.

CalPERS doesn’t want to sponsor such forums. They’re afraid they’ll be seen as favoring incumbents or wasting taxpayer money. However, beginning with the second year, they’ve been generous with videotaping and helping us get out the world. Last year, we held a second forum at CalSTRS, with an audience of about 60.

This year, we finally obtained use of the CalPERS auditorium. Turnout doubled to 120. If we get permission to use the CalPERS auditorium next time and attendance doubles again, we will be turning people away.

I haven’t seen anything in the press on what was said, other than this brief mention by Ed Mendel, Will pension funds unite to invest in job creation? (Calpensions, April 28, 2011).

At a forum this week, several candidates running for a CalPERS board seat abruptly vacated by Kurato Shimada, who once worked for Villalobos, mentioned the need to counter media “scare tactics” and negative publicity about public pensions.

The candidates appear to agree on most of the issues, with slight variations. Perhaps the most significant change from 25 years ago, or even a few years ago… all the candidates pledged they would not be taking gifts from anyone doing business with CalPERS.

That’s progress. However, I also favor raising the limit on per diem and meal allowances. It is hard to imagine Board members conducting business in high cost areas, such as San Francisco or New York and being limited to $6 for breakfast and $18 for dinner. They’ll most certainly be reaching into their own pockets to pay, unless they can convince their colleagues to go to a fast food joint. The Federal government reimburses up to $18 and $36 for the same meals.

Any system of ethics depends largely on honest reporting. I recall a training session held at CalPERS years ago where one of the Board members said bluntly, when faced with a scenario described by the attorney instructor, that he wouldn’t be reporting. With unreasonable per diems, that prospect seems more likely.

We should have videos or at least links to videos of the forum soon… perhaps by the end of next week.  In the meantime, read and watch Candidate Statements & Videos.


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