Sonoma County's pension system has hired as its new top administrator an official with the much larger and more politically embattled Orange County government retirement fund.
Julie Wyne, the assistant chief executive officer and general counsel for the Orange County system, is set to take over for Gary Bei, who is retiring after nine years as Sonoma County's pension administrator.
Wyne, 49, has worked at the Orange County Employees Retirement System since 2000, starting as a staff attorney. She has held her current position since 2008.
Her move north will take her from an $11 billion pension fund, with about 40,000 active and retired members, to Sonoma County's $2.2 billion fund, with about 8,600 retirees and active workers combined.
Both systems have been faced with significant funding challenges, fueled largely by more generous pension benefits approved in the past decade and staggering investment losses during the recession.
Sonoma County's unfunded pension liability — the difference between its assets and what it will owe to retirees — totals $527 million. Orange County's is $5.7 billion.
"I wouldn't put Sonoma in a different place than any other sister system (in California) as far as the challenges they're facing," Wyne said.
The Sonoma County Employees' Retirement Association covers six government agencies, of which the county is by far the largest. Both it and the Orange County fund are part of a network of 20 county pension systems independent from the two main state funds, CalPERS and CalSTRS.
Wyne's arrival in Sonoma County will coincide with ongoing efforts to address skyrocketing taxpayer pension costs and implementation of accounting changes that would require local and state governments to more clearly report the extent of their unfunded pension obligations.
Wyne said she is up to the task. "It was time for me to step up and run a system," she said.
The state-ordered pension reforms and looming accounting changes are familiar issues at this point, she said. New challenges will include how to prepare Sonoma County's system for the future, making sure the various policies and assumptions that go into pension administration are sound.
"And then you look at your investment portfolio," Wyne said. "What is the business cycle doing, where is it going and are we well positioned for the future?"
That work has been bruising at times in Orange County, where dueling political camps have tussled for control of the pension board. Its decision to lower the fund's earnings assumption rate — and the resulting higher contributions for both the employees and the county — have prompted rebellion among a group of 18,000 county workers, which has claimed the new, more frugal math is an attempt by conservative officials to make the system appear unsustainable. The group has threatened to jump to CalPERS, the giant system serving mostly state and city employees.
Sonoma County's pension system, while closely watched by unions and retirees, hasn't seen those sort of fireworks. Wyne said that was a plus for her.
In Orange County "there was a lot of distraction from political pressure that takes away from the right question, which is 'What is the fiduciary responsibility?'" she said.
Wyne's legal background, breadth of experience in Orange County and ability to build relationships with county officials, retirees and the public drove her selection, said Kiergan Pegg, chairman of the board for the Sonoma County Employees' Retirement Association.