Ohio's second largest public pension system put its director on leave, is fielding hundreds of public records requests from a mysterious entity and faces another pivotal board election in 2024.
By Laura Bischoff, Columbus Dispatch Jan. 3, 2023
In November, an anonymous letter purporting to be from State Teachers Retirement System employees accused Executive Director Bill Neville of bizarre, harassing and violent behavior. The Ohio Attorney General's office, which represents state pension funds, hired an outside firm to investigate the allegations. A report is expected as soon as February.
Neville's attorney, Rex Elliott, said in a written statement: "There is no truth to the allegations in the letter which is likely why the author did not disclose their name. If there was any truth to the allegations the person who wrote the letter would have come out of the shadows and filed a legally protected complaint to Human Resources. Bill’s personnel file and his record at STRS plainly demonstrate that this is nothing more than an attempt to force Mr. Neville out of STRS."
Who is Bill Neville?
STRS hired Neville more than 19 years ago, named him chief legal officer in 2018 and appointed him as executive director in 2020.
The board twice granted one-year contract extensions for Neville so his job as executive director runs through June 2027. His annual salary is $318,000.
A review of his personnel record, obtained through a public records request, shows he consistently received positive job performance reviews. Absent from the lengthy file are any records alleging misconduct − until the anonymous letter emerged.
The letter comes at a time when the 11-member board is divided over Neville's leadership. In February 2023, the board deadlocked 5-5 over a no confidence vote in Neville.
Board comments on Neville's 2021 performance evaluation praised him for improving communications and called him a "consummate professional."
But things took a turn in his 2022 and 2023 reviews where board member comments showed a deep division over whether Neville is the right leader for the pension fund.
"Members are angry for the most part and demand change. It is beyond repair with the current leadership," one commenter said in the 2023 review.
Another commenter said: "Bill knows his true north as it relates to his responsibility to this system and the people it serves. He is unwavering in that regard. I highly rate his performance and his strategic acumen in the face of naysayers and tough economic times."
Anonymous records requests flood pension fund
The state's five public pension systems are subject to Ohio's open records laws that allow people to request records without identifying themselves or giving a reason why they want the information.
Since Sept. 9, 2022, STRS received 328 requests from an anonymous emailer that uses the handle "UhOhSPGo," according to the pension fund's public records log. That makes up 54% of the 608 requests received by STRS during that time period, according to the log.
UhOhSPGo wanted a variety of records, such as public records and visitor logs, Neville emails, board election results and meeting attendance, senior staff evaluations, and other items. An email sent to the address did not prompt a reply.
In 2022 and 2023, STRS received 782 records requests, up from 237 in 2020 and 2021.
Teachers to pick board member this spring.
The board is a combination of elected and appointed trustees. Activists have been mounting a board takeover, electing board members who are more sympathetic to their complaints about transparency, senior leadership, staff bonuses, and the suspension of the cost-of-living allowances for retirees.
The activist faction was on the brink of holding a majority of the seats. But Gov. Mike DeWine tipped balance of power on the board when he removed his appointee, Wade Steen, and replaced him with G. Brent Bishop − prompting Steen to file a lawsuit.
This spring, teachers will elect a fellow teacher to the board seat currently held by STRS Board Chairman Dale Price. Price hasn't said if he's seeking reelection.
Teacher unions and retiree groups are expected to endorse candidates.
"We're looking for someone who'll do their homework, ask questions and push the system to restore benefits in a fiscally responsible way," said Melissa Cropper, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers.
Brunswick City School District high school government teacher Michelle Flanigan is circulating petitions to run for the seat. She declined to comment on her goals for STRS until after she is interviewed by interest groups, including the Ohio Federation of Teachers.
STRS Ohio said members who pull petitions to run for board seats is confidential until the paperwork is filed.
How did STRS get to this point?
The discontent has been building for a decade. In 2012, legislators approved a pension reform package that required public employees to work longer for fewer benefits. Starting in 2013, STRS retirees received lower cost-of-living allowances and then in 2017, the cost-of- living allowances stopped.
The cuts were made to help shore up the pension fund. A one-time cost-of-living allowance of 3% was restored beginning in July 2022 but it's still not back to what retirees want.
Ohio Retirement for Teachers Association and STRS Watchdogs became very active and vocal about the fund's management. They paid $75,000 for an outside consultant to comb through STRS records and write a highly critical report. And they helped elect new members to the STRS board.
Dean Dennis of ORTA and the watchdogs said they want board members who are prudent and responsive to the teachers and retirees.
"It's sad that the board is divided. We certainly need to be putting our energies toward making the system work for its members," Dennis said.
Laura Bischoff is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the
Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliated
news organizations across Ohio.