Friday, July 10, 2009

R.I. Ethics Panel to Review Union Issues

By Mike Stanton

Journal Staff Writer

When Valerie Zuercher was elected to the Exeter-West Greenwich School Committee last November, she worried about a potential conflict of interest –– she belonged to the teachers union in neighboring South Kingstown.

So out of an abundance of caution, she asked the Rhode Island Ethics Commission for an advisory opinion: Could she participate in matters involving the Exeter-West Greenwich teachers union, which had the same parent organization as hers?

The commission said earlier this year that she could, ruling as it has in several other opinions dating to 1996 that there is no conflict.

Now, the commission is taking a closer look at the issue.

Groups such as Operation Clean Government and Common Cause Rhode Island argue that the rules should be tightened, because how public officials act on union matters in their communities could affect their own unions. Labor contracts in one town are often cited in negotiations in another town. And local unions are often affiliated with the same statewide union.

Defenders of the status quo argue that the current ethics rules are sufficient. The Ethics Commission has held repeatedly that there is no financial or business relationship between a public official who belongs to a union in another town and a union negotiator.

In Zuercher’s case, the South Kingstown and Exeter-West Greenwich teachers unions are both affiliated with National Education Association Rhode Island. Both locals use the same statewide union representative in collective bargaining.

“I didn’t feel that there was a conflict, but I wanted a higher authority to weigh in because I didn’t want to do anything wrong,” said Zuercher, who works as a school social worker in South Kingstown. “I’m sure in certain situations there could be a conflict –– if I was a union rep more involved in the ins and outs of the contract in the town where I work. But I’m not.”

Zuercher added that in Exeter-West Greenwich she is not on the school board’s bargaining committee; if she were, she might seek another advisory opinion from the Ethics Commission.

At an Ethics Commission hearing last month on whether the rules should be changed, Harry Staley of the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition, a confederation of taxpayer organizations, argued that a school committee member who belongs to a teachers union in another community “is effectively negotiating with himself and/or his interests,” according to commission minutes. “The entire situation is fraught with actual or potential conflicts.”

George Nee, secretary-treasurer of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, countered that further restrictions would unfairly limit a public official’s ability to participate in the democratic process. Voters are aware of the backgrounds of the people they elect, he said. That position was echoed by lawyer Robert Mann, who spoke on behalf of Working Rhode Island, a coalition of labor organizations.

Barbara H. Binder, the chairwoman of the Ethics Commission, noted that a unionized employee of the Community College of Rhode Island who serves on the Narragansett School Committee sought an advisory opinion last year because she didn’t feel comfortable negotiating with the teachers union in Narragansett. She belongs to the same umbrella union at CCRI. The commission said that she could.

Sandra Thompson, of Operation Clean Government, told the commission that there is still “a commonality” between union contracts in different communities “which cannot be absolved and which does not serve the public interest.”

Rep. Douglas W. Gablinske, D-Bristol, urged the commission to “follow the money,” suggesting that there is “frequent crossover” of local union dues going to umbrella union organizations. Nee said the financial structure varies, depending on the union and the community.

Binder asked the commission’s staff to further study the matter, including a financial analysis that would focus on the “financial nexus” between statewide teachers unions and their local affiliates. No date has been set for further action.

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