Retirement Board election spending could open up with new law

The little known but financially significant San Francisco Retirement Board wields an outsized influence on The City’s financial health and the future of thousands of retirees.

But there is little sunlight when it comes to campaign finances for that elected body, which is voted on by employees and retirees. That lack of information was on display earlier this year in a divisive campaign between a former police officer and the incumbent, though no one knew for sure how much was spent on either candidate.

But that could change come the next election.

Supervisor Malia Cohen introduced legislation Tuesday that would require candidates of the San Francisco Employee Retirement System, the Health Service Board and Retiree Health Care Trust Fund to disclose their campaign finances like others running for office in The City. It does require self-reporting of third-party spending but does not address issues around pay-to-play corruption.

“There needs to be some oversight put in,” said Cohen.

SEE RELATED: Divisive election for SF retirement board election highlights transparency concerns

The legislation, which would require reporting of all contributions over $500 as well as spending, arose in part out of concerns that surfaced following the recent Retirement Board election between incumbent Herb Meiberger and Police Officers
Association-backed Al Casciato, a retired officer.

In January, Casciato, who won the election, told the San Francisco Examiner that his campaign had spent about $40,000 so far but would not say how much had been raised. Meiberger said he’d only spent about $12,000 of his own funds for mailers.

But none of that could verified.

“Just sitting back and watching the Retirement Board election unfold was concerning to me,” Cohen said.
“I thought there should be more oversight put into place, meaning people should be disclosing any spending over $500.”

The legislation is a good start, said Larry Bush of Friends of Ethics, but bringing these boards up to the
standards of the rest of The City’s election process leaves a lot to hope for.

Independent expenditures that are not directly linked to the candidates and pay-to-play remain an issue.

“The critical issue is pay-to-play; when money is pouring in to help elect people directly or indirectly in hopes that someone will profit from the outcome of the election,” said Bush.

For instance, Bush said if Chevron wants Retirement Board candidates who back fossil fuel investments and opposes those who support divestment, their money may follow: Chevron can give money to the candidates who support fossil fuel investments.

The Board

The seven-member San Francisco Employee Retirement System has three mayoral appointees, three elected seats and one Board of Supervisors’ appointee. Collectively the body votes on how to invest more than $20 billion in pension funds.

The performance of those funds impacts how much pensioners receive every month and how much city employees must put into the system — all of which can impact city coffers and create shortfalls in the portfolio, which must be filled by The City.

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