"The government being the people's business, it necessarily follows that its operations should be at all times open to the public view," William Jennings Bryan, secretary of state, reminded citizens at a 1915 speech in Baltimore.
Alas, the officials running the Prince George's County Retirement System in Largo, Md., seem to have either never heard of Mr. Bryan, or forgotten for whom they are working.
The Prince George's County Police and Fire Service Pension Plans had combined assets of $815 million at the end of the year. That is the retirement money of thousands of hard-working county government employees, and the public has a right to know how that money is being managed.
An open process ensures that pension plan executives who are entrusted with managing the assets solely for the benefit of participants and their beneficiaries are indeed fulfilling that responsibility.
Yet the officials running the Prince George's County pension fund act as if they are managing the private estate of a reclusive millionaire. In the process, they are doing a disservice to the plan's participants, and creating suspicions about the manner in which the money is being managed.
On more than one occasion, Kathleen W. Colbert, the retirement administrator for the plan, has thwarted efforts by this reporter to attend board meetings of the pension fund. Although she is within the letter of the law, she has abused the spirit of the state's Freedom of Information Act by responding to written requests for meeting dates after the meetings are over.
Under Maryland law, public officials have 30 days within which to respond to requests under the Freedom of Information Act.
This reporter's request for meeting dates of upcoming meetings and minutes of previous board meetings was faxed on Jan. 25
Ms. Colbert's response was dated Feb. 23 - after the board of trustees had met that day.
The board of trustees of the pension plan meets only a few times a year; the next meeting isn't until Aug. 24.
What's more, minutes of previous open board meetings, received by mail Feb. 28 were rendered useless because all information pertaining to investments was deleted. Deletions were indicated by ( ).
Tina B. Poitevien, the investment consultant to the plan, the minutes stated, "discussed the poor performance of ( ) and the ( ) for the past two quarters." At the Aug. 31, 2000, board meeting, trustees voted to terminate these unnamed investment managers if their performance did not improve, and to begin searching for replacements within 30 days from Sept. 1, according to the minutes. The minutes further stated that "( ) had been recommended as a replacement for ( )," but because the firm wanted 75 basis points in fees, a motion was made by a trustee not to hire the unnamed firm, and to hire ( ) instead.
Granted, the state's sunshine laws permit the county's pension fund to discuss in private matters related to investments. But officials of other public pension funds in the state recognize the public's need to know.
Even the nation's largest public pension fund, the $169 billion California Public Employees' Retirement System, holds open board meetings at which reporters from this publication and others are frequently present. CalPERS has a lot more money to lose through press reports of its investment activities than a fund more than a hundred times smaller.
So just what are the officials of Prince George's County Retirement System hiding?