After 11 drafts and months of behind-the-scenes negotiations, a bill to start divesting Montgomery County’s employee pension funds from fossil-fuel company stocks is nowhere near a final vote.
Fossil-fuel holdings represent just $70 million of the county’s $4 billion pension portfolio. But the debate has become a broader fight over power, prerogative and the best way for the liberal-minded county to fight climate change.
The bill, sponsored by Council President Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) and Council member Nancy Navarro (D-Mid-County), has drawn fierce opposition from many retirees as well as the board that oversees their money.
The thirteen-member Board of Investment Trustees regards the bill as unwarranted interference with the panel’s legal obligation to maximize returns.
Board chairman Gino Renne told county lawmakers that there is no disagreement about the moral urgency of limiting climate change. But policies are in place directing professional fund managers to seek out socially responsible investments, he said, rendering the legislative proposal unnecessary.
“None of us on the board disagrees with the goal. We’re not taking a blind eye to climate change,” Renne said Thursday at a council committee work session on the bill. “Trust us. We’re not novices.”
The proposal is supported by the Montgomery chapter of 350.org, the grass-roots group whose name refers to the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide many scientists say the planet must achieve to avoid the most severe consequences of climate change.
Passage of the bill would make the county one of the largest jurisdictions in the country to join the fossil-fuel divestiture movement. San Francisco, Seattle and Portland are among the localities that have approved some form of divestment.
Since the bill’s introduction last fall, Berliner has agreed to significant revisions. A measure requiring complete divestment after five years has been dropped. New language sharpens a provision that the board would not be required to do anything it considered inconsistent with its fiduciary obligations under law.
Berliner expressed exasperation that opponents were not reassured by his amendments. He noted that the board has opposed past efforts by the council to regulate certain county investments to advance social or political interests.
In 1986, the council enacted a law requiring the board to restrict certain investments in companies doing business in South Africa. The measure was rolled back when apartheid ended. In 2008, the council barred investments in companies doing business in Sudan.
“I and some of my colleagues just struggle as to whether this is in fact drawing a line in the sand saying . . . keep your nose out of our business,” Berliner said.
Renne and Linda Herman, the board’s executive director, agreed to continue discussions with the council and reconvene on the issue later this month.