You'd expect unions to get along with pension reform advocates about as well as cats get along with water. But this year's election for two seats on the Menlo Park fire district board developed an interesting twist when the San Mateo County Labor Council and Menlo Park Firefighters Association Local 2400 announced their endorsements.
Virginia Chang Kiraly got the nod, as did Rob Silano. Ms. Chang Kiraly, a community activist who volunteers with the Red Cross and Junior League, also put her time in supporting Measure L during last year's election.
Rob Silano, a national security analyst for the state running for the board for a second time following an unsuccessful campaign in 2005, said he also supports pension reform, although the Measure L crowd has taken issue with the depth of his devotion.
"He may have voted for it -- we'll never know for sure," said Measure L stalwart Roy Thiele-Sardina. Although Mr. Silano has union support, he does not share the backing of those who led the successful campaign for Measure L -- unlike Ms. Chang Kiraly.
Mr. Sardina said only Ms. Chang Kiraly worked for Measure L and has demonstrated a commitment to fiscal responsibility. "The grand jury report (on pension reform) she co-authored is the reason we began the fight."
Ms. Chang Kiraly attributed her eclectic mix of endorsements to being the only candidate to ask both sides their opinions on challenging issues like pension reform and believing there's common ground for solutions.
She said she told both the labor council and the firefighters union that she wasn't seeking their endorsement, "but that I did want to listen to their ideas and reaffirm where I stood on pensions and fiscal responsibility," she wrote in an email to the Almanac. "To my astonishment, both organizations endorsed me, which gave me pause. Considering my consistent position over the last 10 years regarding pensions, such as a two-tier system and increased contribution by employees, I didn't know whether I should take their endorsements."
The candidate emphasized that she declined all financial contributions from the unions.
The fire district includes Atherton and East Palo Alto, plus nearby unincorporated areas, in addition to Menlo Park. Repeat candidate Steve Kennedy of East Palo Alto has courted union endorsement for years.
"You'd think that IBEW Local 617 would get around to endorsing one of their own members once in a while but it never hurts to have a candidate who is beholden to organized labor when the time comes to vote for a generous pay and benefits package for the firefighters," he said. "It might be a moot point because given the three year deadlock in negotiations, a vote for a new contract might not come up during their terms in office."
He said he'd probably ruined his chances to get the endorsement of the firefighters by proposing setting aside space, electrical outlets and storage inside a local station for a warming station and access to the communications pipe in the event of a 50-year flood in East Palo Alto.
Incumbent Bart Spencer didn't expect union support, given that his 12 years on the Menlo Park Fire Protection District Board has seen both benefit increases, but more lately, a deadlocked contract negotiation with the firefighters who want a larger pay raise than the board wants to give.
Union representative John Wurdinger offered insight into the endorsements. "Despite what some might think, we do not want elected officials who will simply 'vote our way' as some media outlets portray," he said." We want and need elected officials who are open to conversation and who will communicate with us on issues that we feel are important and then make rational, well informed decisions.
"There are members of our current fire board who have voted twice to not talk to their employees, this is flat out wrong. Both Virginia and Rob are open to input, this cannot be said of all of our existing board members."
Describing the fire district as "broken from years without sound leadership and proper management," he said the hope is that the endorsed candidates are able to help fix the organization before it's too late.