In November, PERA’s Board elected a new chair and vice chair. This is the first of a two-part series introducing these new leaders.
This month, Marcus Pennell begins a two-year term as the chair of PERA’s Board of Trustees. Pennell is new to the role but certainly not new to the Board. He brings with him nearly 15 years of experience on the Board, where he most recently served as vice chair.
Pennell recently spoke to PERA On The Issues about his background and his perspective on the work the Board does. The conversation is summarized below.
Thanks for joining us, Marcus. Before we get to PERA, tell us a bit about yourself.
I grew up in Washington. My mom’s a nurse and my dad’s a welder and mechanic. I’ve been teaching in Colorado since 2001 and currently am a physics teacher at Ralston Valley in Arvada. My wife is a principal. I have two kiddos: a 14-year-old who is freshman in high school and a 22-year-old who is in law school.
What made you interested in running for the Board in the first place?
I believe that public service is a good thing for every person to do. What you do depends on your skillset.
Some people volunteer at their church. Some at a soup kitchen. There are lots of places where you can volunteer and lots of things you can do. Find something you can do that will benefit others. Not as a stepping stone to something else—something where you’re truly doing it for others.
This is my skillset. I understand how pensions work. I understand how systems work. I understand how to get people from point A to point B in their thinking.
What should others know about your approach to leadership as you assume the responsibilities of chair?
I think as a leader I am much more interested in process, not an agenda. How we go about doing our business is often as important as the business itself. I want to hold fast to the tenets of: having good information; having a clear picture of where PERA stands in relation to its goals; of knowing what our business practices are, what our CAFR looks like, the results of our audits, etc. It’s our job to make well-reasoned decisions and then constantly evaluate as we go.
We live in a probabilistic world. If we knew what was going to happen in the future, we could just put PERA on cruise control. Part of the reason the Board exists is to provide good decision-making in a changing world.
How do you explain the role of PERA’s Board to other PERA members?
When I’m asked that question, I ask how long that person can talk with me. If they have 10 or 20 minutes, it usually ends up being a better conversation. PERA is sophisticated. It’s hard to communicate in soundbites.
Ultimately, the Board is a group of people willing to lend their expertise to make the high-level decisions to give the organization direction. We don’t do the investing. We don’t advise the legislature on particular wording deep in some bill. We do set high-level expectations for management. We oversee how PERA is run at a high level, make sure it is transparent. We are making sure PERA is a well-run organization.
How do you describe the value that PERA delivers?
PERA exists because it’s more efficient to provide retirement benefits when you invest as one big fund. Over time, you can make more money this way compared to hundreds of thousands of individuals on their own. The efficiencies you find with our economies of scale are one of the biggest driver of saving money.
All of that is good for members. PERA provides for member retirements in a way that is economically feasible and sustainable. And PERA is doing a great service not just for members, but also for the state of Colorado. If you can fund all these member retirements in a way that’s cost effective, then the cost to the state and to the different PERA employers ends up being less than it otherwise would be. That’s a good deal for everybody.
What’s one thing about PERA that can be difficult to understand?
PERA’s Board isn’t the only body with a role. The state legislature also plays a big role, for example. In fact, they lay out the specifics of the Board’s role in statute. If you don’t take the time to figure out which role belongs to which body, it can be easy to point a finger at the wrong body.
There’s a lot of thoughtful, informed, caring people on the Board, within PERA staff, and in the state legislature. Those people aren’t always in agreement about what the best way to do things is, but people agree that the goal is to provide the best benefit at the lowest cost.
If you are interested in learning more, you can learn about the levers at our disposal. But there is no SparkNotes version of PERA.
What’s one thing about PERA that you’d like more people to be aware of?
That there is a culture of service to members that goes above and beyond merely complying with laws and regulations. The letter of the law and rules are important, and we also strive to transcend that – to be an organization that is honorable, one that carries itself in a manner befitting the important and good work we do for people.