Another CalPERS Victory: CalPERS to Publish “Court Reporter Style” Transcripts

CalPERS CEO Marcie Frost, from the “live” transcript of Wednesday’s board meeting:

And on Tuesday I just wanted to make a brief remark about the decision that was, that happened in governance on retaining the transcripts. Talked with the team last night and what we think is the most proactive next step to take and it was based on some comments that Mr. Miller had provided as well as comments that came in from public commenters is that as we put the agendas out on our website and archive those agendas, we will attach the court reporter style transcripts to those agendas. That way stakeholders are not having to contact CalPERS to get a copy, they can do basically a self-service directly from our website. So we appreciate the input and the ideas from Mr. Miller and our stakeholders.

“Mr. Miller” is presumably new board member David Miller.

CalPERS efforts to thwart transparency and accountability by ending transcription of board meetings appears to have backfired spectacularly. Not only was CalPERS pressed by key players, including retirees and unions, to keep the transcriptions, but it appears that our threat of launching a transcript portal, which would contain the past three years of transcripts as well as prepare and upload future ones, led CalPERS to decide it had to head that off at the pass. Note that we had already put in a Public Records Act request for transcripts from the start of 2014 to present.

This is an important change, since up until now, anyone who wanted a transcript of a CalPERS board meeting would have to obtain it via a Public Records Act request, which even under the best of circumstance is a bit of a hassle, plus you have uncertainty as to when you will get the records. As Jim McRitchie, one of the moving forces in the pushback effort, said in our comments section yesterday:

One thing that was noted is that Board members could still order up a transcript for their own research after the meeting. CalPERS staff would presumably have to reconstruct the transcript using closed captioning from video, trying to add the names of speakers and correcting errors. Trying to do that retroactively could cost almost as much as retaining a court reporter. Additionally, although not mentioned, any one of the directors who favor board accountability could theoretically routinely request a transcript of every meeting and then release it to the public.

Thanks to Naked Capitalism and several union activists, we were able to shut down this most recent initiative. Constant vigilance is required. I think most Board members start out with good intentions but without feedback from stakeholders they can get caught up in their own power bubble. I think this was especially the case when there was little turnover on the Board and members stayed in office for 35 years or more. Back then, they openly declared that laws, such as the Administrative Procedure Act requiring public comment on rulemaking, did not apply to CalPERS. Once you start thinking you are exempt from the law, you have really crossed the line. Let’s all keep working together to ensure CalPERS acts responsibly.

Having said that, there is a potential fly in the ointment in Marcie Frost’s remarks. It seems odd that she said that CalPERS will publish “court reporter style transcripts” as opposed to the actual transcripts themselves.
Some concerns:

Releasing anything other than the same transcript prepared for CalPERS’ own use would represent an extra expense, since that would entail, when cost savings was the rationale for the plan to eliminate the transcripts.

If CalPERS instead plans to publish the auto-generated transcripts, that falls well short of the “court reporter like” promise. As was discussed at some length in the open session yesterday, the auto generated transcripts do not show speaker names, which means for them to be useful, someone has to go back and insert them. Publishing only auto-generated transcripts would be a poke in the eye. If CalPERS were to do that, we would make Public Records Act requests for the court recorder transcripts and maintain an archive for public use.

Another way this initiative could fall short of its promise is if CalPERS were to publish transcripts as images, as opposed to searchable documents. Per Government Code 6253.9, all machine readable documents requested under the Public Records Act must provided in machine readable form. While most people who regularly engage in Internet research know how to OCR a decent quality image of a text document to generate a searchable one, the process can introduce errors. Moreover, a lot of CalPERS “stakeholders” might want once in a great while to look up a transcript (say to check out the detail of a story reported in the press) and they might not figure out how to convert an image to searchable text.

So let us hope that Marcie Frost is living up to the spirit of her remark and will publish the actual court recorder transcripts.

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    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Open meetings are held in full view in a large auditorium. There is always a decent attendance by members of the public. CalPERS live streams the meetings and later puts the videos on YouTube. So there is plenty of general visibility now. But the threat of ending the court recorder transcript would have made it way way difficult to research the behavior of CalPERS staff and board over time.

      Put it another way: with the conditions listed above (plenty of ways to view individual board meetings, plus the ability to get transcripts via the Public Records Act), we’ve documented a culture of casual lying at CalPERS. The impact of making access to transcripts a bit easier won’t change a well-established pattern.

  1. James McRitchie

    Thanks for keeping on top of this. You make an excellent point regarding “court reporter style transcripts.” We definitely need and will demand the gold standard. It needs to be searchable and accurate.

  2. RUKidding

    Another positive achievement. This is great news. Thanks so much for staying on top of this. Very important, not just for CalPers annuitants, CA citizens, but really all pension plans across the USA. Good to know.

    1. flora

      +1. Yes, my state’s Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) takes its general cues from CalPERS. Very glad to see this development.

  3. none

    How does one become President of the CalPERS board, and would it help? Let’s say the initial hurdle of becoming a regular board member (e.g. Margaret Brown) is already out of the way. Just askin’.

  4. Doug Hillman

    Brava Yves! A champagne and confetti shower for you!

    This post’s headline first evoked that too-familiar sinking feeling that the angels of truth and justice lost another one to CalPERS and Blackstone. What a heartening surprise. Well done and thank you.

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