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Baltimore City Council bill would require retirement funds to divest from fossil fuels; fund managers want more time

Officials representing Baltimore’s employee retirement funds are asking for more time to implement a proposed law that would require them to divest from fossil fuel companies.

The bill, sponsored by Councilman Mark Conway, calls for city pension funds to sell fossil fuel stocks within five years of Jan. 1, 2022. The measure, which has been co-sponsored by nearly all of Conway’s council colleagues, would serve as a political statement against companies that Conway and others say pollute Baltimore and the rest of the globe.

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“This is a great opportunity for us to put our money where our mouth is,” the Democratic councilman said Wednesday during a committee meeting.

Leaders of Baltimore’s pension funds said they support the effort, but would need more time to safely sell the holdings without taking a loss. Representatives of the Employees’ Retirement System, the Elected Officials Retirement System and the Fire and Police Employees’ Retirement System proposed a 10-year window for implementation.

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Anthony Calhoun of the Fire and Police Employees’ Retirement System said his group has divested from fossil fuels over the past three years. What was once a $120 million portfolio is now closer to $18 million, he said.

The city is less likely to take a loss if it gives the systems more time to sell and make replacement investments, he said.

“I don’t think I’ll need 10 years to do something, but I need a longer runway to make sure I don’t run into the wall,” Calhoun said.

Conway noted that a provision has been built into the legislation that would allow the city’s retirement systems to request additional time for divestment from the mayor and the Board of Estimates, if needed.

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“If you tell us we have the out, but we have to get approval, is it even really an out?” said David Randall, who represented the nonpolice and fire pensions. Randall suggested an eight-year divestment period as a compromise.

The council’s Public Safety and Government Operations Committee, chaired by Conway, did not take a vote on the measure. The committee will reconvene once proposed amendments have been reviewed.

If the measure passes, it wouldn’t be the first time Baltimore has divested from specific investments for political reasons. In the 1980s, the council directed the city to divest from South Africa due to its apartheid regime. The city has also divested from Sudanese companies in protest of the genocide in Darfur in the mid-2000s.

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