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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Bodysnatchers

It's revenge of the bodysnatcher's day - Halloween (or is that tomorrow, All Saints Day?). Whatever. PERS seems completely without shame. They are sending out recalculation notices with reckless abandon. Some members have received notices dated as recently as 10/29 (two days ago) announcing benefit adjustments to be effective on November 1 (tomorrow, All Saints Day). The ratio of bad news to minor good news is about 4 to 1. Polls of retirees on OPDG indicate that only one retiree for every four is getting a small benefit increase from the recalculations. This is diametrically opposed to what PERS brazenly told Judge Kantor on August 16, 2007. This qualifies as PERS' sleaziest move to date. Let's cut the benefits of 80% of recent retirees with a day or two's notice. Kinda hard to plan a budget based on a fixed amount that suddenly changes. I hope that Judge Kantor not only smacks PERS upside the head for this blatant flaunting of the law (see e.g. Judge Kantor's June 2007 ruling, or, perhaps, the Supreme Court's Strunk ruling in March 2005), but I hope they leave the entire PERB and senior PERS officials in a room with Jack Bauer or Alberto Gonzalez for some torture for their behavior. If all this doesn't constitute an "abuse of discretion" or worse, I can't imagine what qualifies.

Whatever Judge Kantor does I want him, the PERS Coalition, the Governor, and all retirees to know that it my humble opinion that what PERS is currently doing is blatantly criminal. It rises above the crap floating around about what Ted K knew about Neil's peccadillos (or is that pecker dildoes - sorry if I offended, I'm in a really foul mood today). It rises above Bernie Guisto's sleaze. What PERS and PERB are doing is just plain wrong and criminal. They deserve jail, not merely a trip into a court to have their hands and faces slapped. They deserve a visit from the Bodysnatchers and the Dementors. Please feel free to add your own opinions here. I know PERS is reading....

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Live Out the String

I haven't vanished. PERS news is slim right now. The only thing disturbing this period of quiescence is the fact that PERS seems to be sending out recalculation notices at an incredibly rapid pace these days. My guess is they are trying to get as many people as possible recalculated before Judge Kantor issues his ruling on what PERS is permitted to do. If Judge Kantor rules that PERS is NOT permitted to recalculate benefits, then PERS can drag its feet recalculating them back to what they should be according to the Supreme Court ruling in Strunk (Sartain). I can see it now: California wideboys standing before Judge Kantor smirking and telling him that these are really difficult calculations and that PERS just can't do it quickly. We beg you Judge to permit us to delay just a tiny bit longer. And I hope Judge Kantor has the huevos to tell them to stick it where the sun don't shine.

To entertain myself in this period of lull, I'm upgrading my entire home network to Apple's new operating system "Leopard". Leopard is Apple's answer to Windows Vista, except done correctly IMO. It took me nearly two weeks to upgrade a single computer to Windows Vista from Windows XP. Microsoft had so many different versions of Vista that I kept getting the wrong one to match what version of XP I had before. Apple, on the other hand, has a single version of Leopard that includes the same features for all users. They even sell a family pack that allows installation on up to 5 computers. How convenient: my home Apple network has exactly 5 Apple computers. And I don't think Apple counts all that closely. The first computer took just slightly more than an hour to upgrade. As far as I can tell, it was flawless. I found a couple of programs that require upgrades before they will run properly under "Leopard", but none are critical. Most programs just run as is. My second computer upgrade was on my primary network server. This was a leap of faith but I had three backups of the system in case something disastrous happened. I can't say the upgrade went flawlessly, but it only took me one perusal of the Apple newsgroups to figure out how to fix a problem created during the upgrade. It took a little bit longer to download all the needed upgrades to various pieces of the network software and all the utilities I normally use to make life easier. I've been using the updated system for about 6 hours now and I've only run into one piece of software that just plain doesn't run. This piece is important to me, but there are a dozen alternatives I can use in the meantime. While I'm writing this, system number 3 is "doing its thing". I expect no problems there either.

So, if you're bored, have a recent model Apple computer, and want a way to live out the string on a Saturday afternoon, pick up a copy of Apple's Leopard and install it. Your life will be much improved .

Monday, October 22, 2007

Changing of the Guards

Once upon a time there was an organization called OPRI (Oregon PERS Retirees, Inc). It was started by a small group of people in Jack Sollis' den to fight a legislative change that made PERS pensions taxable. OPRI fought this legislative change, won in the Supreme Court, and established itself as THE force to deal with on PERS retiree issues. The OPRI website documents their history well; it is not my intent to repeat it. Fast forward to 2003. PERS Retirees are being lambasted by the media for lavish retirement benefits, the legislature gets in the act and OPRI goes into action again to fight all the changes by the Legislature. Enter Martha Sartain. She's the plaintiff OPRI selects to fight the Legislative change in HB 2003 that suspends (freezes) the COLA for certain retirees ("window retirees"). OPRI hires a top-flight attorney, Scott Johnson, who, along with pension expert Greg Hartman, successfully petition the Oregon Supreme Court to overturn two key provisions of the 2003 law. During the fight, OPRI raises a good deal of money from members for its legal defense fund. Jack Sollis promises members that their donations would be returned to the extent possible if they win attorney fees in the Oregon Supreme Court. Both Jack Sollis and Martha Sartain die during 2007 - Jack of a lengthy illness; Martha of a short illness. During Martha's time as a Board Member she expresses private frustration to me that the OPRI Board seems unresponsive to the needs of recent retirees. She is also frustrated by recent retirees lack of involvement in the process. We both agree that part of the problem stems from PERS' decision - mandated by State law - to NOT give OPRI space in the retirement package to include membership information as they had in the past. Consequently OPRI has no easy way to contact recent retirees. Nevertheless, modern communication technologies make it possible to reach many people at once using the web and various web technologies including blogs, newsletters, mailing lists, and newsgroups. During the peak of legislative activity, my own blog evolved out of an ever-expanding mailing list that reached close to 2500 at its peak. The Oregon PERS Discussion Group (OPDG) has currently over 1000 members and has over 20,000 messages posted since November 2003. Thus, despite the limitations imposed by privacy requirements, use of modern technology has enabled many retirees to get information they otherwise would not have. Martha's objective during her short tenure on the OPRI Board was to modernize its communications system to take advantage of the instant nature of Web 2.0. She was partly successful, but not successful enough to maintain her energy to fight the inertia she described on the OPRI Board.

A constant theme in the OPDG discussion group is "where is OPRI?". The current OPRI Board is governed by an archaic set of bylaws that make it nearly impossible for newcomers to penetrate the inner circle. Board members are selected by Board members; bylaw changes are voted on by Board members. Who guards the guards? Once OPRI takes your money, you have no further voice in the operation of the organization. As an old commercial once asked: "Is this any way to run an airline?" A number of OPRI members worked out a proposal to amend the bylaws to make them more democratic. They were presented to the OPRI Board about a year ago. Not all Board members were present; there were enough for a quorum, which rejected the bylaw changes.

This month, two Board seat terms expire. OPRI put out a call for volunteers for these two seats. Kathleen Beaufait, current Board Chair of OPRI, announced some time ago that she intended to run again for her seat. The other seat, held by a public school administrative or certificated retiree, was being vacated by the incumbent and would be open. The current Board consists of 6 non-recent retirees (pre-2000) and 3 "window" retirees. The two vacancies were from pre-2000 retirees. Informed sources tell me that the 3 "window" retirees have little voice on the Board. Many people, including me, put out an appeal for qualified applicants to put their name up to OPRI for these Board positions. No one responded. Ms. Beaufait was reappointed; OPRI is still looking for the public school administrative or certificated retiree.

Although some may think that OPRI's day may have come and gone, I'm not yet persuaded. If we can gain one more seat on the Board, the pre-2000 retirees will hold a slim majority of 5-4, not unlike our Supreme Court. If the right person goes up for the Board and is selected, perhaps he or she might convince the Board of the wisdom of reaching out to this large group of retirees (numbers exceeding 40,000 if PERS' reports are accurate) and enfranchising them. This is not a class struggle, but the reluctance of the current Board to make the kind of changes needed to persuade new leaders to come forward is maddening and frustrating. The proposals introduced last year were fair, were necessary, and would have energized the organization. Moreover, they would have energized members, many of whom are questioning what they are getting for their dues (however small they might be). Of course, life would be much easier for recent retirees if they had a majority on the OPRI Board.

Since I've never been bashful before, I'm not going to be bashful now. It really is time for some of the current OPRI Board to step aside and let some new blood energize the organization. Let some of the recent retirees make the kind of changes needed to democratize OPRI. Let members have a vote in bylaw changes and in Board membership. OPRI is no longer the club it used to be. Public employment is no longer as civilized as it used to be in the 1960's and 1970's. Public employment no longer works at all like it did 30 or 40 years ago. It is a nasty world out there and there are some mean people out to trample public employees into the dust. There are people out to destroy public employee collective bargaining. There are people out there who want to take more pension benefits away from active employees as well as current retirees. We need a strong OPRI to fight off these changes. The current OPRI is limp, resting on its past victories, and completely ineffective in dealing with all the SOB's of the world. It is time for a change.

(P.S. For those current Board apologists who will argue that no recent retirees apply for their open positions, see the discussion of the archaic bylaws. There are plenty of people who would be interested in getting involved with an energized OPRI but are restricted by the bylaws which limit voting to members of the Board.)

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Walking On Thin Ice

I'm in a cranky mood today. I'm annoyed that with two OPRI Board seats opening, NO (none, zero, nada, zip) recent retiree applied. Consequently, the OPRI Board remains unchanged for another couple of years. The OPRI Board is controlled by people from a different retirement era and who, thus, have very little interest or concern in the problems faced by recent and soon-to-be retirees. The old-guard is dying off and recent retirees outnumber them considerably. Yet, despite that demographic fact, not a single member of the 38,000 "window retiree" cohort took the time or interest to apply for those open positions, which would have resulted in a recent retiree majority. I *would* have applied, but the OPRI bylaws prevented me because I didn't work for one of the areas from which the open positions derived (State of Oregon, not Higher Education, or public schools, not Higher Education). But, I'd hazard a guess that those two areas covered about one-third of the "window retirees" - about 13,000 possible candidates.

Here we had a golden opportunity to have a significant influence on the direction that OPRI takes. Yet, only pure apathy can describe this lack of movement. It can't be ignorance because this blog and OPDG had countless announcements of the vacancies.

I'm getting very discouraged by things like this. While I appreciate all the individual kudos I get for writing this blog, and I appreciate the individuals who have contributed to the development of a high-class database of all PERS-related documents, it is the lack of effort on the part of most readers of this blog, most lurkers on OPDG, and the rest of the 38,000+ affected retirees that puts us in a sorry predicament. We have NO (none, zero, nada, zip) organization that exclusively represents the interests of recent PERS retirees. Right now, we have a couple of lawsuits out there that might change our collective fates, but legal representation costs megabucks and those megabucks are coming largely from the unions representing active workers, not retirees. How much longer do you think the unions are going to spend the kind of money required to litigate every injustice done to retirees, especially with the abject apathy evident. If people really cared, they'd be scrambling to overtake OPRI with current retirees; they'd be scrambling to be at PERS Board meetings where the action is; they'd show up at every court hearing on any of these cases. In fact, retiree inaction is so pitiful that we've let PERS walk right over the top of us. Do you think if we had a strong and highly visible presence, we'd have been stomped so hard? Either people have been lulled into a false sense of security that the litigation will eventually play out in their favor, or more likely they've chosen to bury their heads in the sand. Worse still, perhaps they don't care. Perhaps in the ultimate act of masochism towards oneself and sadism towards fellow retirees, they are into self-flagellation. I've seen this from a few - "We don't deserve the size retirement benefits we got. The current actions are fair." When I hear that, my blood pressure goes through the roof. Talk about blaming the victim. I sure as hell don't think my pension is too high. I chose to retire when I did on the expectation of getting my fixed pension plus COLA each year. I retired before any of this Lipscomb shit came down. Why the hell should I be screwed for the stupidity of the PERS Board. Their only fault was abject stupidity. They did nothing illegal and my pension does not contain any errors except for the COLA that PERS has been withholding since 2003.

I hate to say this but recent PERS retirees, in the main, have walked right into this buzzsaw and seem not to care. The apathy is PERS' strongest weapon. Recent retirees are walking on thin ice and are about to fall in and drown. Inactivity is our own worst enemy. I'm afraid that the longer I see this, the less motivation I have to keep spending the time and energy researching all these topics. If I can't motivate people to become more informed, more proactive, more reactive, and more energized to participate in all the various opportunities we have had to effect some change in our fates, then it may be time to retire in peace. I *know* my fate. I *know* how to fight and I will fight, but on my behalf. If 38,000+ people don't care enough to help themselves, why should I care so much? It is a question I find myself asking more and more each day. I'm gonna need a lot of convincing to stay at this.

P.S. Added at 9 p.m. I've learned that there might have been one applicant for the State Employee position but I don't know whether this was Kathleen Beaufait, incumbent in the position, or her and one other person. The fact is that Kathleen was reappointed. The other position, for a public school system retiree, remains open for anyone to apply for. The incumbent in that position chose not to "re-up".

Monday, October 15, 2007

Beware of Darkness

The PERS Document Library project is going well. The developer is meeting early benchmarks and we are on track to have an operational multithread database in about 6 weeks. We've raised about $2400 towards the expected $3000 to $4000 goal, but that leaves us far short of our needs. You have no idea how important this library really is. For people who are trying to figure out what PERS is done, what PERS has done, or what PERS is likely to do next, this library will be invaluable. I've already used it about a dozen times because it conveniently locates a boatload of documents in one place. Knowledge is power; information is knowledge; and access to information is the most important facet of a free society. Please consider a small, medium, or large donation. Whatever your budget can afford will help. The only thing we all have to fear is darkness. PERS has kept a lot of people in the dark for many years. Help shed some light on PERS and we can all watch the rats and cockroaches scramble from the corners they've been hiding in for years.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Pull My Strings

The notice PERS sends out with its recalculation letter contains some fascinating revisionist legal obfuscation. My favorite sentence in the whole letter reads: "At this time, there is a lawsuit pending in Multnomah County Circuit Court addressing the issue of whether PERS can collect this overpayment amount from you." This is the most blatant bit of blarney I've read in a very long time. How wrong is this sentence? Let me count the ways. First, there is not one lawsuit pending, but three (Arken, Robinson, and White). Both Arken and Robinson address questions related to whether PERS can collect the overpayment. White addresses the question of whether the PERS Board breached its fiduciary duty to members and retirees by entering into the so-called settlement agreement with employers. Second, not only is the issue of collecting overpayments at issue, there is also the question of whether PERS can reduce your benefit, particularly if you are a window retiree (Arken). Finally, there is the whole question of whether the Legislature even intended for retirees to be dunned if the City of Eugene case (now both mooted and vacated) was ruled in favor of the employers. There is this section of the 2003 legislation that deals with how PERS is supposed to treat retirees in the event the Lipscomb decision were upheld. The Robinson litigation argues that PERS has no right to collect from retirees using section 238.715; instead, they must use either a COLA freeze (ruled a breach of contract by the Supreme Court), or charge the expenses off to administrative costs from future earnings. Judge Kantor has already ruled that PERS is bound by section 14b of the 2003 legislation.

So, if you read PERS' letter, do not be misled into thinking that there is only one case with legal bearing on PERS and you, and do not believe that those cases before Multnomah County Circuit Court only address the limited question of whether PERS can collect overpayments from you. There is much more at stake than that. PERS is simply pulling your strings and watching you dance. Not me.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall

And I sure as hell hope PERS drowns in it. Got my "invoice" today. I'm not surprised. PERS has been throwing everything they have at getting as many of these suckers out as they can *before* Judge Kantor rules. You can bet I will appeal, but I'm not telling anyone when my appeal will hit PERS. Mine doesn't contain any surprises, much less any good news. I "owe" those SOB's $14K+ for benefits that are genuinely mine, and my monthly benefit will drop by about $54 per month as a result of recalculations. I'm sure the calculations are correct. After all, my own calculator gave me the correct answer 6 months ago. But, I'm not going after THOSE calculations. I have my mind wrapped around a bunch of other things. Just wait for that hard rain. I've got an umbrella.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

A Cold Wind Blows Through Your Door

The PERS folks are at it again. Although this is not new information, many of us are just discovering its implications. Remember the old days? The days when you would get a new PERS Member Handbook every couple of years. It would describe membership benefits, information about past Board decisions and legislation, describe all the retirement options, and in general make you feel warm and fuzzy about your retirement plan. You know the plan. The one that your employer kept telling you that it would make up for the crummy salary they were paying you. The plan that would take care of you in your retirement. Yes, that one. Well between 2005 and 2007, PERS decided to "retire" (their word, not mine) the Member Handbook and replace it with their online version of A-Z questions and answers. While it is nice to have an electronic version of typical questions and answers, this in no way replaces the Handbook. I have an entire file of handbooks from my time waiting for PERS to take care of me. They are, except their definition of "taking care" of me is to continually stab me in the back stripping little things from me regularly. The "public" reason given for "retiring" the Member Handbook is that it saves the organization money. True enough, except that the money doesn't seem to be finding its way back to members. In the scheme of things, the cost of printing the members handbook, or putting a pdf version online, is trivial. My hunch is that since the member handbook has been one of the "bones of contention" during the Strunk hearings and later, PERS didn't want to put anything in such permanent writing. If they post it on the web, it is ephemeral, and can be changed with the flip of a switch.

This latest trick is an injustice to all of those people who don't have regular access to a computer, but also to all those people who can find something easily by using a Table of Contents and an Index - something that appeared in the Member Handbook. The best WE can do is to collect as many documents, as many page impressions, and as much support we have to build the library of documents described above (Livin' in the Future) and below (Power To the People). If you want to thwart PERS' effort to make less information available, please help us in our effort to invert that and make as MUCH information public and accessible as possible. Support the database project. Complain to PERS about discontinuing the Member Handbook. That cold wind you feel is coming from PERS slowly sucking as much available printed information as possible into the electronic bit bucket.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

It Ain't Right

Something is up at PERS. For the longest time I'd hear from a few readers per week about their invoices from PERS. I'd help them understand what PERS was doing and would point out how I might appeal if I were in their positions. Something changed late last week. I'm not sure exactly what happened, but all of a sudden my mailbox is overrun with notes from readers about being invoiced. Since yesterday, I've received exactly 25 emails from readers who found invoices in their mailboxes yesterday and today. Add that to the nearly two dozen I received last week and this adds up to a major campaign by PERS to push those invoices out the door. I find the timing somewhat suspicious. Of course I'm a conspiracy theorist. After all, I watch CSI, House, Grey's Anatomy, Cold Case, the Sopranos where everything is strange and suspicious. In PERS' case, I wonder if there is an in-house agenda to get the invoices out as quickly as possible so that by the time Judge Kantor rules, PERS can plead how complicated it will be to undo all the invoicing they've just busted hump to get out. And of course, with the plea will come the now-tired explanation that their staff is overworked and it will take a very long time to undo what they've done. And oh, how much money it will cost. This is common PERS blarney and I hope that Judge Kantor looks those dirtbag attorneys from California in the eye and says: "Tough shit cowboy. Fix it quickly." And I plan to be in court the day this happens, if Judge Kantor issues his ruling "in person." Otherwise, I plan to be a fly on the wall inside PERS and listen to the wideboys try to explain this to PERS staff by saying: "Whoops, the gig is up. We've exhausted that ploy. Time for some new lame excuses. Got any ideas." All the while, I'll be saying: It ain't right to make those PERS boys behave. They're bad to the core.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Power To The People

Since 2002, I've been writing and then blogging about PERS issues. I've had access to thousands of documents, none private, but many not circulated widely. Others I know have their own set of documents. Over the years, it has become increasingly hard to lay hands on a document related to PERS, the PERS "crisis", the PERS Legislation, and the PERS litigation without a lengthy search. A few months ago about 5 of us decided that we had to put our heads together to solve the document access problem. Pretty soon a plan developed, largely due to the skills and motivation of Greg Scott, to put all these collected documents into a searchable library. Our plan involves developing a search engine that will enable interested readers to find documents by keywords, phrases, author, possibly date. The search engine is under development. We have marshaled many documents - more than one thousand -- and collected them into a single place - http://oregonpers.info. As is noted at this site, it is dedicated to the memory of Martha Sartain, an incredibly smart, persistent, and avid chronicler of PERS. Martha not only sacrificed her life (perhaps not literally, but figuratively) by agreeing to be the OPRI plaintiff in the Strunk case. Martha's case - Sartain v PERS - was about the retiree COLA freeze. It was one of two cases where the Oregon Supreme Court ruled in retirees favor, agreeing that the Legislature had already made the COLA integral to the retirement contract and could not arbitrarily withhold the COLA from benefits. Although PERS has still failed to implement the Supreme Court's version of the COLA freeze - and Martha died before this issue was resolved - it was her intellect, her sense of righteous indignation, her understanding of PERS history, and her ability to communicate all this to OPRI's lawyer that resulted in an excellent and winning case to the OSC.

This library is now open, although the intelligent search functions are not yet ready, and is devoted to our collective belief that "knowledge is power". Information is knowledge in this day and age and we believe in power to the people. Please visit http://oregonpers.info and see for yourself the vast array of documents assembled. Please make sure you send comments, opinions, documents, criticisms, and suggestions to the link at the site. I will have a link on the left for this new site in a day or two. (Puppy calls).

Monday, October 01, 2007

I Don't Want You Now

Or ever, for that matter. You'll be pleased to know that Greg Macpherson's got the endorsement of Governor Kulongoski and former Governor Barbara Roberts. Big whoop. With friends like those, Greg doesn't need any enemies. Since there is no love lost between Governor ("I won't take benefits from retiree's accounts) Kulongoski and PERS members/retirees, and Barbara Roberts, through no particular fault of her own, managed to scare the state into passing Measure 5 by announcing how many people would die as a result of passing this measure. I'm afraid she cried wolf too many times and the voters were simply not swayed. As a result, we got Measure 5, and it took more than 10 years for the disaster to strike. By that time, nobody connected the doom with passage of that "little" measure back in 1990. In any case, I'm hoping that their endorsement of Greg Macpherson will help him with the kiss of political death. Gone from public life, at least for the near term, perhaps forever.