Guest Opinion: Endorsements — 'conflict of interest' or union bashing?
by LaDoris Cordell
As the Palo Alto City Council race gets into high gear, at least two candidates have placed the issue of conflict of interest front and center.
They have pointedly declined to seek the endorsement of Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, whose membership includes the great majority of Palo Alto city employees. The candidates maintain that because the city is in negotiations with the union, their seekingthe union's endorsement represents a significant, although not illegal, conflict of interest.
A conflict of interest in government exists whenever an individual or organization is in a position to influence or benefit from an official decision. A conflict of interest can be actual or it can be a perception.
For example, the City Council, during my tenure, adopted a "no gifts" policy that prohibits council members from accepting gifts of any kind from anyone except family members. We adopted this rule to avoid even the perception of a conflict of interest in our decision-making, to remove any doubt that our decisions might be influenced by gift-givers.
When I ran for council I refused to accept monetary contributions from anyone, preferring to avoid the perception that I might be beholden to interest groups or individuals. I therefore applaud elected officials and those running for public office who strive to avoid the pitfalls posed by conflicts of interest.
If the candidates who now refuse to seek the union's endorsement had adopted an across-the-board no-endorsements policy, then their refusal to seek union support would be laudable.
But they have not. To the contrary, these candidates are actively seeking the endorsements of other special-interest groups, including realtors, developers, environmentalists and neighborhood associations.
The great majority of council decisions concern land use, zoning and housing issues. As a consequence, developers and realtors frequently appear before the council to advocate for their various projects.
Arguing on the other side, oftentimes, are environmentalists and representatives of neighborhood associations, of all whom are well known to council members. These interest groups are in no different a position than are the members of SEIU with respect to what they seek from our council -- to be fairly heard and fairly treated.
Therefore for these candidates to single out only SEIU's endorsement is naive at best and hypocritical at worst.
Tensions are high as the city management and union leaders negotiate SEIU's new contract. Talk of a pending strike has escalated. This is not the time for council candidates to engage in union bashing, which, sadly, is exactly what those who have singled out the union in this fashion are encouraging.
We need council members who represent all of our community, which includes our hardworking city employees. An endorsement from the union is no less an honor than an endorsement from any other group, nor is it more of a conflict of interest.
LaDoris Cordell is a former judge, Palo Alto City Council member and special counsel to the Stanford University president. She can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.