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Think it’s difficult to understand the county pension agency’s new investment strategy? Or how $10 billion in assets could magically become $20 billion invested in the market? Or what rules regulate the road? You’re not alone.

Many of those who sit on the pension board appear a bit lost themselves.

And during Thursday’s San Diego County Employees Retirement Association board meeting, trustees searched for clarity – and got a little annoyed when there was none to be found.

One telling exchange came between Board Trustee Dianne Jacob and SDCERA’s counsel, Steve Rice, as Rice recounted some recent agency history.

“That’s what I understand the record to show on this,” Rice told the board.

“Not my understanding,” Jacob responded. A short while later, Jacob told Rice that “it’s confusing.”

“It’s not real clear, and I think in a contract that we’re being asked to approve, where we’ve had some changes, [we] need to be very clear,” Jacob said.

Then when it came time to talk about the new investment strategy, Jacob and other board members basically implored the financial advisers to cut the jargon.

“You know, not all of us on this board are financial people,” board chair Skip Murphy said to investment adviser Scott Whalen, “and I hate to use the term ‘dumb it down a little bit,’ but if you could bring it down to our level, and members of the audience level as we go along.”

Jacob was even more direct.

“Just talk in plain English,” she told Whalen.

“We’ve had criticism of this investment strategy and I think it’s really important to respond to the issues that have been raised and take them seriously, but also today to make sure that in plain English, dumb it down, whatever you want to say, that all our constituents out there … really understand what’s going on,” Jacob said.

At one point during the meeting, new board member Samantha Begovich even tried to use some cash and change as props to understand how leverage could work.

And board trustee and county Treasurer-Tax Collector Dan McAllister submitted two dozen questions about the strategy and contract to the agency’s chief executive officer – another indication of how board members are trying to wrap their heads around all the changes and issues.

For his part, Lee Partridge, head of the investment firm that has all of SDCERA’s money, tried to compliment the board despite their pleas to simplify explanations. He told board members they were “by far the most sophisticated trustees” he had ever dealt with.

Ari Bloomekatz

Ari Bloomekatz is an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego, focusing on county government. You can reach him directly at ari.bloomekatz@voiceofsandiego.org...

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