Public Watchdog.org

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

01.26.09

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.

13 comments so far

Watchdog, thanks again for another informative piece.

While the prospect of “pay-to-play” politics coming to the Park District courtesy of SEIU is troubling, and un-wanted, I have to comment on a specific segment of the article; the fact that the Park District has the meetings available to be viewed on their website.

With a budget that is by far smaller than the City, D207 or D64, they have figured out how to break down one more barrier between the citizens and their government.

I know I’ve seen some recent video (shot courtesy of a Park Ridge resident) from the City’s COW meeting, where Frimark is asking not to be quoted on things he’s said, so I know if the City Council meetings were to be broadcast it would be “Must See TV” in this house.

What’s their delay?

Public Watchdog, you have got to be kidding when you say ‘But if Candidates Brandt, Giordano and Mizialko get elected to the Park Board and turn out to be SEIU sympathizers’.
?If? they turn out to be SEIU sympathizers? If? Union members were ciruclating their petitions! These candidates aren’t sympathizers. They’re in the union’s pocket.

The cost of living increase may be the single dumbest and most unjustified basis for employee compensation that was ever invented. I sure hope the Park District holds the line against those, and that other candidates not in bed with teh union decide to run.

But after listening to the union guy babble on the videotape, I have to wonder why the Park District has paid $250,000 (if that number is accurate) for attorney(s) to handle the negotiations, and why no Park Board member has been sitting in on those negotiations. Even though Dist. 64 has generally been silly putty in the hands of the PREA, I think even they had a board member (or two) designated to be part of the District’s negotiating team. It doesn’t sound right that no pakr board member in part of the team.

Hoover…the number is not accurate. Not to split hairs, but the number is $180,000 since the start of the process, roughly three years ago.

I’m not saying $180,000 is not a lot of money…it certainly is, but it is still less than $250,000, and it’s over a three year period.

These numbers represent the fees that the District has incurred from hiring an attorney that specializes in labor law.

I’m glad they are getting solid legal advice here, even at a cost.

Also…my own thoughts are that if having an elected official on the negotiating team gets us what PREA got from the D64 Board…then there should never be an elected official on any negotiating team—-ever!

Of course because D64’s Board gave away the farm does not mean that the Park Board would, but I’d be careful in holding D64 up as an example as a way to negotiate on behalf of the citizens.

Watchdog,
Thank you as always for your thoughtfull and wise commentary. I agree that unions serve an important role and are responsible for most of the benefits our workforce enjoys. However, when a union bargains in bad faith and has its representatives grandstanding and threatening the park board in a public meeting it hurts its own members and its credibility as an organization. Add to that its underhanded strategy of running a slate solely for the purpose of getting puppet candidates on board who will unquestionably do its bidding and you have a receipe for disaster. What is worrisome is that in races like this, which are considered minor or unimportant by the local media and unfortunately many of the voters the truth gets lost and the people with the most lawn signs and most ads in the paper get elected. The union slate will be heavily financed by SEIU (who is already planning a February fundraiser for them) to ensure that the voters miss what is coming their way. It is unfortunate when the democratic process is hijacked in such manner. Hopefully the voters will pay attention and realize that their taxes will soon be financing workers who get paid because they’ve warmed their seat long enough to get the raise whether they deserve it or not.

May I ask has anyone else filed to run? You mentioned some are gathering signatures. Have you heard anything about if anyone filed by the deadline? I am out and about all over PR on a regular basis and somehow they completely missed me for my signature (Perhaps they were at Oberweis?)

Not to steal the thunder from Watchdog, who I’m sure will update soon, but ANON at 9:11…yes there are going to be 10 candidates for these four spots.

The Union is running 4 (if you take the fact that SEIU Rep Tim McDonald was personally present when four candidates turned in their paperwork to run).

KS

In defense of the caucus, there were NO other potential candidates to endorse, so they had to endorse the only 4 that came forward to run. It was not for lack of trying to have more candidates, the caucus members tried extremely hard to encourage ANYONE to run, but there was simply not enough interested people. And since no one else has filed their own petition to run without being endorsed by the caucus, the voters will have no choice in April.

interested party on 01.27.09 11:21 pm:

Your comment points out exactly why the Caucus is such an insidious deterrent to contested elections and voter choice: It’s very existence and operation discourage people – especially those who might want to serve on the school board but who don’t want to be part of the Caucus process – from running against Caucus-endorsed candidates.

That can also be said in response to your comment about the Caucus having “tried extremely hard to encourage ANYONE to run.” What exactly did the Caucus do to get “ANYONE” to run? Did it promise that it and its members wouldn’t do anything to support its endorsed candidates in a contested election?

No? We didn’t think so.

Anybody who’s been paying attention over the years knows that the Caucus process is not designed to foster the democratic process. That’s because an unsuccessful Caucus endorsee who chooses to run anyway knows from history that he/she will face the full force of the Caucus – and the perception, carefully cultivated by the Caucus, that its endorsed candidates represent “the community’s” choices of the most qualified people.

Not only will such a challenger have to fight the money and manpower that the Caucus will generate, but the challenger also will have to overcome the suggestion that his/her candidacy is just sour grapes about not getting the Caucus’s endorsement.

And if that’s not enough to deter most reasonable people, we remind you that even after non-Caucus candidate Ted Smart won election two years ago, it was reported that he received nasty and threatening phone calls demanding that he not accept the seat he was voted to. We don’t know if those calls came from Caucus members or supporters, but that would sure be a logical choice of suspects.

So if you’re looking for someone to bear responsibility for the fact that “no one else has filed their own petition to run without being endorsed by the caucus,” look no further than the Caucus itself.

The four candidates the union are endorsing have lived in Park Ridge for most of their lives. These are people who are loyal to the community and have the best interest of the public in mind. They’ve seen the way things have been run and decided to step up to change things.
The candidates have businesses here. They want to bring accountability to the Park District.
Puppets of the Union? Have any of you even heard anything about the candidates, or are you all just making snap judgments? Are we so cynical? At least listen to what they have to say before making your decision.

So what if the union-endorsed candidates have lived in Park Ridge most of their lives? Oh, wait a minute – I get it. These are candidates of a special interest that believes in “seniority” instead of merit.

As far as having heard anything about the candidates, all I need to know is that they are sponsored by a union that is negotiating for cost of living increases instead of merit pay. That’s enough for me to know that I won’t be voting for them.

And yes, “we” ARE “so cynical” because we live in a state that is a cesspool of special interest influence and corruption. So no, thank you, to SEIU puppets. And no, thank you, to Caucus puppets.

Public Watch Dog,
Anyone who was not endorsed by the caucus is free to run anyway. It is their own choice. The caucus has a small budget and chooses two candidates for 207 so as not to appear that Park Ridge is trying to run the show. There is absolutely nothing that stops any other candidate from running….they could even have their petitions signed at the caucus event if they so chose. Candidates surfaced very slowly this year. Multiple phone calls were made trying to identify those who might be interested in serving. Those are the facts.

ChitownJoe:

Your comments beg the question: Why do the voters of Park Ridge need the Caucus?

No similar “organization” exists to screen candidates for the City Council or the Park District Board, yet those bodies regularly attract more candidates – and with qualifications that seem to us as good or better than anybody the Caucus has endorsed for the School boards (which, we recognize, might be somewhat damning with faint praise, at least given the performance of the City’s Alderpuppets).

If the Caucus can attract only four candidates to seek endorsement for four seats on the board, even after “[m]ultiple phone calls were made trying to identify” potential candidates, then maybe the voters are finally recognizing for themselves what we’ve been arguing for awhile: The Caucus is little more than a political party without any platform or principles; and the candidate selection process is little more than a charade.



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