The State Worker

Stop opening my mail, CalPERS board member demands

New CalPERS leaders don’t trust each other. Will their feud hurt members?

On March 19, new CalPERS board member Margaret Brown drew attention to discipline she experienced for allowing a friend to use CalPERS equipment for political purposes by asking whether she would be arrested for attending the pension fund's meeting.
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On March 19, new CalPERS board member Margaret Brown drew attention to discipline she experienced for allowing a friend to use CalPERS equipment for political purposes by asking whether she would be arrested for attending the pension fund's meeting.

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A new elected member of the California Public Employees’ Retirement System wants the $355 billion pension fund to quit opening her mail.

So far, she isn’t persuading CalPERS to end its practice of reviewing correspondence addressed to the 13 elected and appointed leaders who sit on its board of administration.

Margaret Brown, the new board member, contends the practice hurts her ability to respond to constituents or hear from whistleblowers who might want to call attention to misconduct.

“If someone is going to personally address a letter to me, then I would like to personally take the time to read it,” she said.

The disagreement hinges on whether CalPERS board members should be considered independent policy makers — like state legislators — or leaders of a complex agency that might better serve retirees by steering information requests to staff experts.

Brown has been pressing for change since March, when a constituent told her she hadn’t replied to mail. Her questions led her to discover that CalPERS allows Board President Priya Mathur to review mail addressed to board members and decide how to respond.

The CalPERS board on Monday discussed the practice but did not leave room for a change in course. CalPERS General Counsel Matt Jacobs said any mail addressed to CalPERS belongs to CalPERS, not the elected and appointed board members.

“It’s not private correspondence if the mail comes into an agency, no matter who it’s directed to. It’s the property of the agency, just like it would be if it’s a corporation.”

Brown told Jacobs she’d have her lawyer sort out the practice.

“You’re citing a code that refers to us as employees. We are not employees. We are elected members,” she said. “We can have another conversation, and we can have another conversation with lawyers over this.”

Several board members said they favor the practice of allowing CalPERS staff to first review mail, saying it could save time and expedite responses to technical questions about benefits.

“I don't know that it makes sense for us to receive every single piece of mail directed to us,” said board member Theresa Taylor.

Other board members tried to find some kind of middle ground. Bill Slaton asked that CalPERS notify board members immediately if it receives mail addressed to them, but then continue its practice of allowing staff to review the correspondence.

“That way you know if something came in addressed to you. You are then copied with the resolution at the end,” Slaton said.

Steve Juarez, a board member who sits in place of Treasurer John Chiang, seemed to align with Brown in asking CalPERS to reconsider its mail practice.

“I figure if someone's sending me a letter here for some reason that I should get that letter first,” he said. "If I feel it’s better to have the system respond, I'll send it back.”

CalPERS did not vote on changing its mail policy. It’s taking another look at the practice and considering adding a new method to notify board members when they receive mail.

Brown and Mathur have been at odds over CalPERS board practices since Brown joined the board in January. Mathur, a longtime board member, was elected its president that month.

Mathur changed some board member practices, including one that now requires CalPERS board members to review confidential material only at the CalPERS headquarters in Sacramento.

Mathur is concerned that privileged information will accidentally leak into the public domain, where it could harm CalPERS. But the practice is also an inconvenience to Brown and other board members who live in Southern California.

"In this digital age, it's so easy for information to be inadvertently disclosed. It’s not that anyone is deliberately doing anything," Mathur said.

The board on Monday left that practice in place but agreed to consider setting up locations for board members to read confidential mail at CalPERS satellite offices.

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