Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Questioning the candidates

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Sept. 3, 2009.

The Press-Citizen and the Iowa City Education Association are co-sponsoring a forum tonight with the six candidates for the Iowa City School Board. The discussion will begin at 6:30 p.m. at the Iowa City Public Library.

We encourage voters to learn as much as possible about the issues facing the school board at this pivotal time. The forum will provide an opportunity to hear the candidates explain their positions as well as to observe how the candidates might interact with the public and with other board members.

In addition to questions of policy and educational philosophy, one of the questions the Press-Citizen Editorial Board routinely asks candidates is, "What conflicts of interest from your personal and professional life do you see arising if voters were to elect you to office?"

• In the past two years, incumbent candidate Mike Cooper has recused himself when the district is discussing making purchases from his employer, Pearson. First-time candidate Anne Johnson, who also works at Pearson, would face a similar decision if voters elect her on Sept. 8.

• April Armstrong said, because her husband is part owner of Apex Construction, she would recuse herself from any voting on any bids from Apex Construction that might come before the board.

• Jean Jordison said, because her daughter and son-in-law work for the district, she probably would not work on negotiations -- even if it isn't determined to be a conflict legally.

• And Tuyet Dorau said her only conflict would be the fact that her son is a student at North Central Junior High -- which seems more of a potential bias than a legal conflict.

But the potential conflict of interest that has been getting the most attention involves Sarah Swisher, who is currently employed as political director for Service Employees International Union Local 199. The question arises because Swisher's employer represents three units of district employees: physical plant workers, school year secretaries and food service workers.

While there is some disagreement on whether Swisher can participate in the discussion of issues directly involving SEIU, there seems to be little disagreement that she shouldn't. Swisher herself told the Press-Citizen Thursday that, if she were elected, she would not participate in bargaining any union contract involving SEIU.

And it seems clear that Swisher, if elected, would retain her right to participate fully in discussions of all issues not directly involving her employer.

In fact, in a March 19 letter answering questions raised by a similar situation in Iowa County, the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board suggested that Chapter 68 of the Iowa Code doesn't even make it "an impermissible conflict of interest" for a Teamsters-employed Iowa County supervisor to act "on behalf of the county with a collective bargaining agreement that (his or her) outside employer helped negotiate." That's because the contracts under the elected officials' "control, inspection, review, audit, or enforcement authority" are with the public employees themselves, not with the unions.

Kirsten Frey, an attorney for the district, said the ethics board is correct in its analysis of the Iowa Code. But she points out other court decisions that require a stricter standard whenever public officials face a conflict of interest between their professional and public duties. In an Aug. 28 letter to the district, Frey advises that "an individual should recuse himself or herself whenever the interest of his or her employer might be implicated."

Yet Frey also advises against board members taking any steps to restrict involuntarily the voting purview of other members. That could be a violation of the board member's rights and could lead to its own legal problems. And Frey told the Press-Citizen Tuesday that Swisher would face a potential conflict only in terms of issues involving SEIU -- not on other budget or labor issues.

Frey ends her letter advising the district to seek further clarification from the Iowa Attorney General's Office.

It's just one example of the many complicated questions board members will face.

Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at 319-887-5435 or jcharisc@press-citizen.com.

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