When the head of one of the state's largest independent pension funds received an invitation recently for his staff to attend a conference in Hawaii, his response lacked the aloha spirit.
"I don't plan on approving anyone to attend this conference given its location. ... Hawaii is just not the right message to send at this time," William Raggio, interim general manager of the Los Angeles Fire and Police Pensions, warned in an email to his staff.
But other pension plans couldn't resist. Four of the state's 24 largest independent municipal retirement systems intend to send up to five board members each, a survey by California Watch has found.
They include the city of Los Angeles, as well as Contra Costa, Los Angeles and San Diego counties -- which are short a combined $17.5 billion to pay promised retiree pension benefits, according to figures provided by the plans.
Conference organizers expect about 1,000 pension trustees, money managers and consultants from across the nation to converge on Waikiki from May 19-23 for the National Conference on Public Employee Retirement Systems, billed as the largest gathering of its kind for public pension plans.
An agenda shows most conference sessions end by early afternoon, leaving ample time for surfing, golfing, tanning or relaxing at one of the conference hotel's five swimming pools. The total cost per attendee: $2,600 or more, by some estimates, including airfare, hotel, registration and other expenses.
The conference website supplies board members hoping to shore up support for their expenses-paid trip a "2013 Attendance Justification Tool Kit." The site also includes "7 Tips for Building Your Case for Attending the Annual Conference," which suggests that trustees emphasize how the conference could help them "build a networking list" and identify ways to help "save your fund money."
Asked why pension officials needed a tool kit to rationalize their trip to Honolulu, Hank Kim, executive director and counsel for the trade association organizing the national conference, said, "In hindsight, maybe 'justification' wasn't the best choice of words."
Critics of government spending -- and some pension officials -- say travel to exotic destinations by those overseeing ailing pension funds is unseemly, especially as taxpayers watch their public services diminish to offset growing pension costs.
"There's no such thing as a free trip to Waikiki," said Joe Nation, a professor of the practice of public policy at Stanford University, who specializes in public employee pensions. "Everybody loses; taxpayers will have to pay more, or beneficiaries will have to pay more, or a combination of the two."
Nation, a former Assembly Democrat from Marin, added that the pension managers "would have higher returns and their beneficiaries would be better off if they were to forgo this trip or travel close to home."
The conference in Hawaii was planned and booked back in 2006, before the recent recession, Kim said. Still, organizers expect a strong turnout as trustees and money managers seek to gain an edge in a recovering economy.
"Being able to have discussions and network with pension officials from all over the country is one of the things that our members find most valuable," said Kim, whose organization represents nearly 560 public pension plans nationwide.
Sessions are to include "Avoiding a Front Page Scandal at Your Pension Fund: Learning by Example," and "How Do We Transform the Way People Think, Talk and Act about Pensions?"
California Watch, the states largest investigative reporting team, is part of the independent, nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting. For more, visit www.c