Saturday, October 31, 2009

Rhode Island panel eyes conflicts of elected officials with union ties

By Steve Peoples

Journal State House Bureau

PROVIDENCE –– The state Ethics Commission is moving forward with a plan that would reverse a long-held position that largely guides the behavior of labor union members who are also elected officials.

Critics have long contended that organized labor wields tremendous influence in state and local affairs, at least, in part, because union members serve in the General Assembly and in local town councils and school committees. The Ethics Commission has consistently ruled that such officials may vote on union issues, and even participate in contract negotiations, so long as they don’t belong to the specific local union involved.

That may be about to change.

While a final vote is at least a month away, the commission has drafted a proposal that would prohibit elected officials from participating in any union business that affects not only their specific local union, but also the umbrella organization — such as the National Education Association — to which they may belong.

The issue arises most often, according to a commission analysis, with teachers elected to serve on school committees outside the district where they work. They have traditionally been allowed to vote on union issues, even though the NEA may represent teachers in both districts.

“After conducting research and receiving public input on this specific issue, the commission has concluded that the prior analysis applied to this issue is no longer valid,” reads the proposal discussed at the commission’s Tuesday meeting. The first of at least two required votes was scheduled for its next meeting, Oct. 20.

“I think it’s a major shift,” said commission Vice Chairman Ross E. Cheit, noting that the board welcomes public input. “If they don’t think this makes sense, I want to fully understand why.”

Organized labor has strongly opposed such a shift. In an interview Tuesday afternoon, AFL-CIO President George Nee warned of legal action should it become final.

“Instead of encouraging people to participate in the political process, they seem to be putting up more roadblocks and hurdles. They should listen to logic more than talk radio,” Nee said of the commissioners. “Obviously, we will be checking those issues with our attorney. If it can be the subject of legal action, I’m sure it will be.”

It’s unclear, however, whether the change would be subject to a court challenge.

The commission voted 5 to 2 Tuesday morning to address the matter by issuing a “general commission advisory,” as opposed to changing a specific rule related to the state code of ethics.

“I don’t think you can take an advisory opinion to court,” Cheit said. “It’s just advice.”

The policy shift –– which is backed by government watchdogs Common Cause and Operation Clean Government –– centers on the commission’s interpretation of the term, “business association,” as set in the state Code of Ethics. Traditionally, rank-and-file members have not been viewed as business associates of labor umbrella organizations such as the NEA or AFL-CIO, which consist of various local unions and receive a portion of each member’s dues.

The complicated issue has been visited 31 times since 1995, according to an analysis by commission staff attorney Esme DeVault. Almost half of those cases involved school committee members who were also members of teachers’ unions.

Valerie Zuercher serves as a recent example.

Elected to the Exeter-West Greenwich School Committee last November, she is also a social worker in the South Kingstown school district and therefore a member of that local teachers union and the larger umbrella organization, the National Education Association. The NEA also represents teachers in Exeter-West Greenwich.

In asking for an advisory opinion earlier in the year, Zuercher noted that the same NEA negotiator that represents her interests in South Kingstown also represents teachers in Exeter-West Greenwich.

The commission ruled there was no conflict.

But such advisories could go the other way should the new policy take effect, effectively barring Zuercher and others in her position from voting on teachers’ contracts or other issues involving locals represented by the NEA.