The Risks And Rewards Of “Choice” In Local Elections (Updated 1/27/09)


We here at PublicWatchdog are firm believers in contested elections – where competing candidates can present, advocate and defend their qualifications and their ideas on those issues of importance to the voters.

That’s one reason why we oppose the General Caucus of School Districts 64 and 207, which acts like a de facto political party and so dominates school board elections, especially for District 64, that Caucus endorsement is tantamount to election.  Since 1997, when 7 candidates vied for 4 Dist. 64 Board seats, the voters have been able to choose among a mere 20 candidates (only 2 of which were not Caucus endorsees) for 18 District 64 Board slots.  During that same time period, the Park Ridge Park District Board had 30 candidates contesting 21 Board seats, even though the last two elections (2005 and 2007) provided no voter choice.

So while it looks like, barring some last-minute challenger, the Caucus once again has pre-empted the voters in choosing District 64 Board members, we are encouraged by reports that the Park Board will give the voters contested races.  

Although incumbent Board member Dick Barton has already announced his retirement, and incumbents Sal Raspanti, Nick Millisis and Steve Hunst have yet to disclose their plans, three candidates have already filed their petitions for four Board seats; and we have heard that other candidates are collecting signatures to get on the ballot by today’s filing deadline. 

We sure hope so, both in the interest of voter choice and because, in this instance, the three candidates already on file – retiree Richard J. Brandt, attorney Nicholas Giordano and restaurateur Walter Mizialko – are reportedly members of a slate endorsed by a special interest that could be viewed as being at odds with the common interest of Park District taxpayers: Local 73 of the Service Employees International Union (“SEIU”), the collective bargaining agent for approximately 36 Park District employees.

We wish to make clear that we have a healthy respect and appreciation for unions.  Most of the decent working conditions we take for granted today – including workplace safety, health, welfare and pension benefits – were brought about by unions.  In the private sector, where unions began, they have always provided some measure of bargaining equality between management and labor that has fostered what still is the highest overall standard of living in the world.

In the public sector, however, unionization of the workforce has tended to create an imbalance in favor of the employee, in no small measure because bureaucrats and politicians lack the same degree of interest, incentive and competence for guarding the public purse that their private sector counterparts display in looking out for their own pocketbooks and/or for providing a reasonable return on investment for their shareholders.

Maybe that’s why, while most taxpayers working in the private sector worry about whether the plummeting value of their 401(k)s will permit them to retire at 65 or 70, unionized teachers and other government workers look forward to earlier retirement with defined pension benefits effectively guarantied by those very same taxpayers who can’t themselves afford retirement.  And many of those same taxpayers face the constant prospect of their employers down-sizing or closing completely, or their jobs being outsourced to Mexico, India or China – a concern that is foreign to most public sector employees.

So we feel justified in tempering our healthy respect for unions with an equally healthy skepticism upon hearing that the members of this reported SEIU-backed Park Board slate showed up to file their candidate petitions last week accompanied by an SEIU representative, especially at a time when the Park District has been bargaining with the SEIU for more than two years over wages and benefits. 

And we note that one of the key sticking points in those negotiations has been the union’s demand that the Park District abolish merit pay in favor of cost of living increases.  The union’s complaint about merit pay?  As reported in last week’s Herald-Advocate (“Parks workers want new pay raise system,” Jan. 22) and as can be heard on the videotape recording of the Park Board’s January 15, 2009 meeting (from minute 2:07 to 5:46), the concept of “merit” gives management too much discretion in determining pay raises.

Welcome to the real world. 

But if Candidates Brandt, Giordano and Mizialko get elected to the Park Board and turn out to be SEIU sympathizers, that real world at the Park District soon might become a brave new world where compensation based on “merit” – albeit with some perceived inequities – is replaced with compensation by entitlement. 

Update (1/27/09)
It looks like we’re going to have a real horse race for the Park District Board.  In addition to the three candidates who appear to be part of an SEIU-backed slate, we understand that six more candidates filed nominating petitions for the four open seats on the Park Board: current Board member and Homeland Security attorney Nick Milissis, attorney Peter Wachowski (who, like Brandt, Giordano and Mizialko, reportedly filed his petitions accompanied by SEIU vice-president Tim McDonald), attorney Richard Biagi, real estate leasing agent Scott Duerkop, Pawel Matula, Meredith Wisniewski and Steve Vile.

Too bad we can’t report the same for Dist. 64 – but if somebody has heard of any challengers to the latest crop of the Caucus’ usual suspects, feel free to submit a comment.