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Four candidates in running for ERS board of trustees position

Voting is underway to elect one of four candidates running for a position on the Employees Retirement System of Texas’ (ERS) board of trustees. Voting began on March 16 and ends on April 16.

photo of hand placing ballot in ballot boxThe election is to fill the position held by Yolanda (Yoly) Griego. Her term expires on August 31.

Candidates for the position include John Wicks, a reviewer for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Monitoring and Standards Division, Brian White, a deputy public counsel for the Office of Injured Employees Counsel, Cheryl MacBride, deputy commissioner of administration for the Texas General Land Office and Veterans Land Board, and Griego, a programmer for the Health and Human Services Commission who is running for a second term.

Created in 1947, the ERS administers a benefits package for state employees and retirees that includes:

  • Retirement benefits for employees and retirees of state agencies.
  • Health and other insurance benefits in a Group Benefits Program for employees and retirees of state agencies, higher education institutions, Community Supervision and Corrections Department employees and active or retired employees of the Texas Municipal Retirement System and Texas County & District Retirement System.
  • TexFlex, a tax-saving flexible benefit program.
  • Texa$aver 401(k) and 457 investment accounts.

The contested position on the six-member ERS board is one of three filled through election. The remaining three members are appointed, one each by the Governor, the Speaker of the House and the Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court. Both appointed and elected members serve staggered six-year terms. Member duties and responsibilities include trust fund investment decisions, approval of a legislative agenda and the selection of benefit providers.

Members of the ERS as of January 31, 2009 and retired state employees receiving an annuity from ERS are eligible to vote. Paper ballots are mailed to members’ homes. Members can cast their ballots by mail or online at Online voters will need their 11-digit ERS employee identification number and the last four digits of their Social Security number.

Election results will be certified on May 12. A runoff election will be held if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote. The term of the winning candidates runs from September 2009 until August 31, 2015.

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Packaged commissary products pulled from shelves

Salmonella-tainted peanut butter not spread in TDCJ kitchens

What foods TDCJ doesn’t grow, it buys. One of those foods is peanut butter. In a year, the agency goes through more than 71,000 cases or 47 million ounces of peanut butter, using it in everything from sandwiches to freshly baked cookies and cakes. It even stands in as a protein substitute for offenders who can’t or won’t eat meat.

So when institutional-size cans of peanut butter like those TDCJ buys were identified as a source for the widespread outbreak of salmonella poisoning that sickened more than 500 people and led to a massive recall of products earlier this year, Food, Laundry & Supply Department Director Tony D’Cunha asked questions.

“We don’t buy the manufactured snacks (made with peanut butter), but we do use a lot of peanut butter in our kitchens,” D’Cunha said. “It was a big concern to us.”

Federal investigators ultimately determined that the tainted peanut butter came from a plant in Georgia that does not supply TDCJ kitchens. Further, the Oklahoma City-based vendor the agency does contract with for the product sent D’Cunha a letter verifying that its peanut butter comes from a different plant.

“I wanted something in writing because it was such a big recall,” D’Cunha said. “It turns out that they do their own processing and are in no way affiliated with the company in Georgia, so we did not pull the product or send it back to the shipper. And we haven’t had a problem with it.”

Meanwhile, TDCJ Commissary and Trust Fund Manager Nolan Glass said sales of snack crackers containing peanut butter were suspended at all unit commissaries as of January 15 at the request of the agency’s vendor. Also, the vendor instructed the agency to destroy 348 cases of cheese and peanut butter crackers and 29 cases of toasted peanut butter crackers. No cookies or candy bars sold in unit commissaries were affected by the suspension.

“All of the inventory we had in stock on the units and in the warehouse, we discontinued sales and destroyed,” Glass said of the snack cracker products affected by the salmonella threat.

In early February, Glass said the agency had not resumed ordering or selling the suspect snack crackers.

D’Cunha said the agency tests for salmonella when there is evidence of food poisoning on a unit. He said medical authorities in the agency’s Health Services Division are immediately notified so they in turn can request that the Texas Department of Health conduct tests. As a precaution, unit kitchens are required to keep a sample tray of all courses served for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

“If we notice an outbreak, we can go back to those sample trays and determine if it was caused by something in the kitchen,” D’Cunha said.

D’Cunha said the agency serves more than 180 million meals annually and has not experienced an outbreak of salmonella poisoning for several years. Further, he said the agency is now participating in Safe-Serv, a nationally recognized program that will for the first time certify TDCJ food service captains and sergeants in safe food handling techniques.

“I think the key to preventing food-borne illnesses is education and training,” D’Cunha said. “And it’s not a one time deal. You’ve got to keep sharpening the saw. It’s a continuous process.”

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