Oregon Pension System Faces Leadership Vacuum

Bad timing: Top-level departures loom as showdown over financial woes nears.

On top of rising costs and continued troubles with Oregon Public Employees Retirement System’s (PERS) funding, the public pension system has another headache: filling the shoes of several departing executives.

To start, PERS will lose its longstanding executive director, Steve Rodeman, when he retires June 1. Plus, John Thomas, the board’s chair since 2012, will also be leaving, possibly with board member Krystal DeAsis. Rodeman and Thomas will leave the board following its Monday meeting, while DeAsis’ term ends in September. The job announcement for Rodeman’s position closed earlier this week. DeAsis is still deciding if she will leave later this year or stay on for a third term.

This comes as Gov. Kate Brown has been scrambling to find a way to curb the $22 billion unfunded system’s runaway costs. OregonLive reports that it is not known if an internal replacement for Rodeman is lined up, and that the pay may not be high enough to bring in an outside applicant with enough qualifications.

The system consists of four individual retirement programs whose obligations continue to mount, to the vexation of school, state, and local agencies, and other public employers. OregonLive reports that the upcoming legislative session will feature a debate over the fairness of reducing benefits for employees to pay for retiree benefits. And that means there’s a big need to have a new PERS director and board on hand to deal with the issue.

“One of the things that has been invaluable is that everyone has seen the agency as an honest fact broker,” Portland lawyer Greg Hartman, who represents a coalition of public employees, told the publication. “It’s going to take a new leader some time to build credibility with the legislature and all the other players who get involved. This is a tough job.”

While the retirement plan board will search for Rodeman’s replacement, Brown’s office will be searching for Thomas’s. The Oregonian reports that the candidate is expected to have a background in wealth management, financial planning, or a related field.

Jim Green, executive director of the Oregon School Boards Association, told OregonLive that he hopes the pension system doesn’t simply settle for a state employee without the chops to handle such a highly political job that demands a certain expertise. He said, “When you get into PERS, it’s a whole different animal. The agency’s decisions impact everything across the state of Oregon.”

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