Senator may seek emails, texts sent to pension board members during meeting

2013-10-22T22:25:00Z 2013-10-23T16:11:21Z Senator may seek emails, texts sent to pension board members during meetingBy CHARLES S. JOHNSON GazetteState Bureau The Billings Gazette
October 22, 2013 10:25 pm  • 

HELENA — The chairwoman of an interim legislative committee said she may ask a state pension board to provide copies of emails and texts that its members received during a September meeting over assumed rates of investment returns.

At a legislative committee meeting Monday, the chairwoman, Sen. Dee Brown, R-Hungry Horse, raised the possibility of seeking emails and texts of members of the Public Employees’ Retirement Board.

On Tuesday, Brown said in an interview that she first wanted to listen to the audio minutes of the Sept. 12 meeting of the pension board.

Depending on what she learns, Brown said she may formally request the emails and texts and would so on her own, not on behalf of the committee.

“I may make a request,” Brown said. “I’m hoping that they would just voluntarily give it to me. I’m not going to go at great personal expense to do it.”

Brown said she likely would make the request if she learns it would cost her $100 or less to get the emails and texts received by board members.

Brown said she’s afraid some meddling occurred at the board meeting.

“I don’t want any shenanigans going on at this meeting that aren’t open to the public purview,” Brown said,

She added: “How many texts and emails were flying into the people at that board meeting? We in the public expect that everything they do in those meetings — not before, not after — should be public knowledge.”

Brown said the actuaries are hired to be independent and should be allowed to do their jobs without any political meddling.

That same issue was raised Monday in a letter to the legislative committee from Gary Buchanan, a Billings investment advisor who is a member and former chairman of the Montana Board of Investments. Buchanan is not on the pension committee but had read the minutes and talked to some people at the meeting.

Here’s Buchanan’s version:

The pension board’s actuary, Stephen McElhaney, recommended the board lower its assumed earnings on pension investments to 7.5 percent from 7.75 percent annually. That rate is a major assumption used by actuaries to predict the future solvency of the pension system.

State Budget Director Dan Villa, who is not on the board, argued against reducing the 7.75 percent rate. The board, however, voted 4-3 to lower the rate. Villa asked for another vote. The motion to reduce the rate to 7.5 percent then failed 4-3, and then the board voted to keep the assumed rate at 7.75 percent as the governor’s budget director wanted.

Buchanan concluded: “Designing an actuarial number to fit the needs of the governor’s budget is irresponsible and dysfunctional.”

An Associated Press account of the meeting quoted Villa as urging the board to keep the same assumed investment earnings rate until changes in a pension fix passed by the 2013 Legislature have time to kick into place.

“We’ve just got to give this bill a little time to breathe,” Villa was quoted as saying by the AP.

Villa declined to comment on Buchanan’s letter.

Melissa Strecker, a state employee from Missoula, was the lone member of the Public Employees’ Retirement Board to switch sides on the issue, according to the Public Employee Retirement Administration. Attempts to reach her for comment were unsuccessful Tuesday.

Roxanne Minnehan, executive director of the retirement administration, said she can’t act on until she receives a formal request from Brown.

The board has no policy on whether members can receive texts and emails during its meetings, she said.

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