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Pension board refuses to cancel Hawaii trip

In a feisty meeting Thursday, the School Employees Retirement System board rejected calls to cancel a trip to Hawaii and dismissed a proposal to limit trustees’ annual out-of-state travel expenses to $6,000 per board member.

Board member Mary Ann Howell withdrew her request to travel to Hawaii in May for the NCPERS annual conference but said she was doing so for health reasons, not because of public pressure. Board members Barbra Phillips and Catherine Moss refused to cancel their Hawaii trips.

“This is not a vacation as some have insinuated, rather this is my work,” said Moss.

A motion to cancel the trip failed on a 4-3 vote with Howell, Moss, Phillips and Madonna Faragher voting against cancellation and board members James Rossler, Beverly Woolridge and Nancy Edwards voting in favor. A new board member sworn in on Thursday abstained.

Phillips, a bus driver for Ashland city schools, said she needs to attend educational conferences so that she can do her due diligence in investing the system’s $11.4 billion.

A proposed travel policy that mimics the limits followed by Ohio’s four other public employee retirement systems was defeated on a 5-3 vote. Howell, Phillips, Moss, Madonna Faragher and the new board member voted against the policy while Beverly Woolridge, James Rossler and Nancy Edwards voted to adopt it.

“We’re not a cookie-cutter system. We can’t adapt to everyone else’s policy,” Moss said.

The Hawaii trip triggered a backlash from retirees, workers, the public and lawmakers.

Moss, Howell and Phillips did not show up as requested to an Ohio Retirement Study Council meeting to explain why they believe they need to go to Hawaii while none of the other four public pension systems are sending representatives.

SERS lobbyist Fred Mills said not showing up at the ORSC meeting was perceived as a snub and now lawmakers are considering installing travel restrictions in state law, changing the make-up of the SERS board or even merging the SERS system with another pension fund.

“I’m here to tell you the relationship and goodwill certainly have been damaged,” said Mills, who has worked in and around the General Assembly since 1967.

SERS represents 192,558 bus drivers, custodians, cafeteria workers and retirees from Ohio schools. In the past four years, the pension fund has spent $241,391 for trustees to make 67 out-of-state trips to places such as Las Vegas, New York, Orlando and other vacation destinations.

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