Almanac

News - September 8, 2010

Unions silent about candidate meetings

by Sandy Brundage

Menlo Park's six City Council hopefuls are now wading through the nearly endless series of interviews each candidate undergoes before the elections on Nov. 2.

But whether the public has a right to know about the interviews seems to depend on who's doing the interviewing.

"This is like a marathon; it just keeps going," said candidate Chuck Bernstein, who was in the middle of answering questions for the Democratic Party, Silicon Valley Association of Realtors — and two local unions.

The San Mateo County Labor Council and Service Employees International Union Local 521 (SEIU) grabbed the first two weeks of September to grill candidates for possible endorsement.

However, the unions refused to identify who agreed to participate. Shelley Kessler, executive secretary and treasurer for the San Mateo Labor Council, said the interviews are "internal processes" and that names of the candidates attending wouldn't be released to the public.

That extends to the questionnaires candidates were asked to fill out before meeting with union representatives face-to-face.

SEIU spokesman Brian O'Neill explained the secrecy was meant to safeguard the integrity of the interviews. "We do not believe it's fair that the candidates may use their opponents' answers to our questions against them during their campaign. To be fair, we asked the candidates to keep the questions and answers confidential because we really wanted them to give us an honest answer," he said.

Luckily the candidates themselves are more forthcoming, not only confirming their participation (or lack thereof) in the union interviews, but also the answers they gave on questionnaires they were asked to fill out before meeting with union representatives face-to-face.

The SEIU questions ranged from local issues — "Do you support the two-tier retirement system and why?" — to national issues: "Do you support or oppose the general legalization of immigrants currently living in this country?"

As might be guessed by its name, the San Mateo County Labor Council focused on the local level, posing, for example, "Volunteer firefighters as first responders, in lieu of fulltime fire service personnel for a municipal fire department are unreliable. Would you support continuation of or the start up of such a service in your community?"

Both questionnaires attempt to assess what sort of support each candidate is willing to offer the unions, along the lines of picketing, allowing direct access to staff, and helping labor representatives develop legislative proposals.

By presstime The Almanac had received copies of completed union questionnaires from four candidates — Mayor Rich Cline, Councilman Heyward Robinson, educator Chuck Bernstein, and wildcard entrant Russell Peterson. Information about the responses will be published in a future issue.

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