There is mounting concern that some trustees of the School Employees Retirement System are preparing to remove SERS Executive Director Lisa Morris, who publicly advised them not to attend a pension conference in Hawaii next month.
SERS is expected to foot the bill for the trip. Our Columbus bureau first reported on this trip in early March.
“I am concerned that it may be afoot,” said SERS Board Chairwoman Beverly Woolridge, who supports keeping Morris.
The SERS board agenda for its April 18-19 meeting includes an executive session to discuss employment of public employees. Woolridge, who opposes the Hawaii trip, said the executive session was added to the agenda without following the usual protocol of going through the chair and executive director.
“(Morris) has done a good job. Look at where we are. Look at all the good will we have built with the Legislature and Ohio Retirement Study Council. We are in a good position,” said Woolridge, who supports keeping Morris on the job.
Woolridge said she is concerned that board members who backed the Hawaii travel may want to fire Morris and discipline the general counsel, Joe Marotta.
“They have done nothing wrong except disagree with Barbra Phillips, in my opinion. And she is a person who doesn’t like to be disagreed with,” Woolridge said.
Phillips is one of two trustees who are insisting on traveling to a National Conference on Public Employee Retirement Systems at the Hilton Hawaiian Village in Honolulu, despite pressure from the public, retirees, workers and lawmakers to cancel the trip. Phillips could not be reached for comment.
State Rep. Lynn Wachtmann, a Napoleon Republican who chairs the Ohio Retirement Study Council, said he too heard that the board may try to fire Morris over her advice against taking the Hawaii trip.
If trustees do so, Wachtmann said “that would be an extreme example of the inadequacy of the board” and “be indicative of a board with really unstable decision making.”
Such an action could spur the Legislature to pass a law to revamp the board governance. The ORSC reviews and recommends pension legislation to the General Assembly.
Morris’ contract runs through June 30, 2015. Under the employment agreement, she can be fired without cause if two-thirds of the board votes to do so or she can be fired for cause if she were convicted of a crime, engaged in reckless conduct or failed to perform her job.
Firing Morris without cause could cost the system tens of thousands of dollars since her employment contract calls for 60 days of pay and health care coverage. Such a move may also invite litigation. She is paid $196,000 a year and received a glowing evaluations from the board in 2011 and 2012.
SERS has a nine-member board with one vacancy. Gov. John Kasich announced late Thursday that he is appointing Dan Wilson to fill the vacancy. He is expected to be sworn in next week — a development that could remove the threat that a five-trustee block voting could have the power to oust Morris without cause.
SERS Board Member Dee Faragher said she does not know if terminating Morris will be discussed in the upcoming closed door session. When asked if she supports firing Morris, Faragher said, “I can’t comment on that. I have no idea what’s going on.”
At a meeting last month, board members refused to cancel the Hawaii trip. Read more on that meeting and watch video here.
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Our Columbus bureau reporters first reported on the Hawaii trip planned by the School Employees Retirement System board in early March and have stayed on the story in recent weeks. We have three reporters working full-time in Columbus to bring you the latest news you need on politics, government spending and the upcoming debate over the state budget. Follow us on Twitter at @Ohio_Politics