By Kelly Hagen, NDU Communications Director

Since the North Dakota Public Employees Retirement System (NDPERS) first started in 1966, it has grown to administer ten different retirement plans and multiple health, life, dental and other insurance plans for state and political subdivision employees. Nearly 60,000 employees and retirees are currently participating in the retirement and insurance plans that NDPERS administers. With an operation so large and a mission so important as theirs, good leadership has been critical at NDPERS since its inception. A Board of Trustees, currently consisting of nine members, is the governing body of NDPERS. Three of the board members are determined by election of active members in PERS, and one board spot is filled by election of retired public employees.

How does a public employee in our state become aware of an opening on the NDPERS Board? What eligibility requirements must they meet? And what would compel someone to pursue such an opportunity? We asked one of the current board members, Jason Grueneich, who is also a member of North Dakota United, to provide some insight.

“For me, I had never imagined being on the PERS board,” Grueneich said. He grew up in Bismarck and graduated high school here, but he ultimately left the state in 1999. After working in food service and hotel management in Minnesota for many years, he made the decision in 2016 to move back home to Bismarck and was managing a hotel. When the COVID pandemic hit in 2020, it helped to push Grueneich in the direction of a career as a public employee.

“Being in my late 30s-early 40s, I realized I needed some more security,” he said. “So, I started looking at state, county and federal jobs to try and get into government. Yeah, I have a lot of people in my family who worked in North Dakota state government for years, retired on their pensions, had a great life, had a great career, and I knew that if I was going to switch careers kind of midlife, that’s the way I wanted to go.” He started in a data-entry position at the state Department of Transportation and worked his way up to becoming a customer support supervisor, and then was promoted again to his current position as operations support manager. “I manage seven supervisors across the state and then a team of 83 people,” Grueneich said. “So, I spend my time developing them and trying to work with them … and making the job more hands-on where I actually do go to the sites and work with the general public, alongside my employees, so that I can see what they deal with day-to-day and where we can improve our interactions in making the citizens’ experience the best it can be.”

Grueneich said he had been looking for opportunities to become more active in the community since he moved back, and he had noticed the opportunity to run for NDPERS board open a couple of times over the last few years. He declined to run the first two times, but threw his hat into the ring last year. He started recruiting his friends and colleagues to help him get the required amount of signatures in order to be placed on the ballot. “Having grown up in Bismarck, I have friends in a lot of government divisions,” Grueneich said. “So, not only did I have friends and old schoolmates and relatives, but I had North Dakota United members who were helping me gather signatures. I think I got like 200 or 250 more signatures than I even needed to be able to qualify to run. That blew me away, too. … I think it was a few weeks later they released the election ballot, and I go into the state website and I open up the PERS election and realize I’m the only one running at that point.”

He braced himself for the possibility of facing a write-in campaign after it had been announced he was the only candidate, but that didn’t happen. And he was officially elected to serve on the NDPERS Board of Trustees and began his duties in September of 2022.

Serving on the board is a significant time commitment for all its members, and Grueneich admits that it’s been hectic for him while he is balancing a fulltime job at DOT and being a student at Bismarck State College, where he is pursuing a degree in business administration. “Yeah, life is extremely busy,” he said, with a laugh. It’s worth the extra effort, he said, because he’s in a position where he can be helpful in advocating for retaining and improving the benefits that NDPERS offers to so many public workers.

“I don’t think I could have ended up on this PERS board at a better time in the history of the board, in the history of importance to public employees and to the state government,” Grueneich said. “Right now, the PERS board is facing some major potential changes. … We just went through the craziest experience that humanity has gone through in our day and age, a pandemic that shut down the world. You would think that we could take some time to recover fiscally and financially from that, but some legislators are capitalizing on this moment when there’s dips in pension funds and going, ‘It’s the end of the world!’ It’s not. … It will eventually right itself, if we take the right steps.”