Palo Alto's heated negotiations with its largest labor union have created a split between City Council candidates who have received endorsements from labor groups and those who say such endorsements constitute a "conflict of interests."
The issue became publicized at Monday night's council meeting, when candidate Tim Gray urged three of his competitors -- Corey Levens, Nancy Shepherd and Gail Price -- to decline the support of the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council and to set aside what he called "conflicted money."
The labor organization, which represents the interests of dozens of unions in Santa Clara and San Benito counties, has not contributed any money to the three candidates to date, though it proclaims its endorsement of the three candidates on its website. Gray was one of several candidates -- a list that also includes Councilman Larry Klein, Leon Leong, Karen Holman and Brian Steen -- who declined to go through the endorsement process citing a conflict of interests.
Palo Alto has been in intense negotiations since May with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents 617 city workers. City officials have proposed reducing workers' health care and pension benefits -- proposals the workers have vehemently resisted.
Gray said Monday that the labor group's plan is to get three of its choices elected to the nine-member council, which will see at least four new faces next year. Gray pointed to the labor group's 2007 endorsement of two current council members, Yiaway Yeh and Sid Espinosa, and said the labor group is looking to get a "majority" of supporters on the council.
He said the labor group's endorsement, which he expects to be accompanied by expensive mailers and other potential campaign contributions should be rejected.
"Gail Price, Corey Levens, Nancy Shepherd -- I urge them to set aside this conflicted money and be independent," Gray said at the council meeting.
Levens, a corporate attorney who is also seeking a council seat, called Gray's statements "irresponsible" and said they only serve to ferment "the discord and the unbelievable animosity growing in the community."
Levens said the labor council endorsed him because he supports collective bargaining, prevailing-wage policies and other bedrock concepts of the labor movement. He said he did not receive any money from the organization but expects to get some assistance in campaigning.
Levens also said he supports having at least one council member present during contract negotiations.
"They endorsed me because I'm willing to talk to them," Levens said.
Nancy Shepherd, who attended Monday's meeting, pointed out that she only accepts contributions from individuals, not from political action committees, and said she received no money from the labor organization.
Gail Price said she shares the workers' commitment to collective bargaining principles and proposed creation of a joint committee of city and labor officials that would meet throughout the year and strengthen the relationship between the two groups.
Price told the Weekly Tuesday she was surprised by Gray's comments and noted that she has received endorsements from a wide range of organization -- a list that includes the Santa Clara Valley Democratic Party and Sierra Club.
"I'm an independent thinker and I have a long record that shows that I'm an independent thinker," Price told the Weekly.