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3 Ohio school pension board members to take $11.2K trip to Hawaii

Even after being warned about the potential for negative publicity, three members of the public pension board representing school bus drivers, custodians and cafeteria workers voted to send themselves to a conference at an ocean-front resort in Hawaii.

School Employees Retirement System board members Mary Ann Howell, Catherine Moss and Barbra Phillips are scheduled to attend the National Conference on Public Employee Retirement Systems at the Hilton Hawaiian Village in Honolulu in May. SERS is expected to foot the $11,232 bill.

Ohio Retirement Study Council Chairman Lynn Wachtmann, a Republican state representative from Napoleon, asked that the three appear before the bipartisan oversight committee on Tuesday to explain why they think it is so important to make the trip. The trio initially said they would appear but then canceled on Monday.

Wachtmann said he hopes they’ll also cancel their Hawaii trip.

“It shows a lack of being in tune with what a lot of their members would think about this,” he said.

At the SERS board meeting in January, Howell, Moss, Phillips and a fourth member, Madonna Faragher, voted in favor of the travel while members James Rossler and Beverly Woolridge voted against it. Rossler said he decided against attending the conference in Honolulu because it would look bad. Likewise, SERS Executive Director Lisa Morris advised against the travel.

“Perception for many is reality and I don’t think it is a mystery how this would be perceived,” Rossler said, according to meeting minutes.

Organizers of the conference know that the trip might be a tough sell so they include on the website: “Seven Tips for Building Your Case for Attending the 2013 Annual Conference” and “Sample Justification Letter for Fund Members.”

The trip comes after lawmakers reformed the public pension systems in Ohio, forcing government employees to work longer and accept lesser benefits. The changes were made last year to shore up the long-term financial stability of the systems.

No one from the other four pension systems is planning to attend the conference in Hawaii.

In 2010, City of Dayton employee Ken Thomas, who sits on the Ohio Public Employees Retirement System board, attended a conference in Hawaii. OPERS paid $3,197 for his conference registration and hotel but Thomas paid his own airfare and meals. A second OPERS board member, John Mauer, canceled his Hawaii trip and applied the registration fee toward the 2011 conference held in San Diego, said OPERS spokeswoman Julie Graham-Price.

In 2003, two of the public pension funds — State Teachers Retirement System and Ohio Police & Fire Pension Fund — came under fire for lavish spending on board member travel. The scandals led to lawmakers overhauling board governance.

The five systems combined represent 1.7 million retirees and current and former government workers and hold more than $165 billion in investments.

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