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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.)

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