6/15/08

Labor-state unionist in office takes care of #1

Business-as-usual presents no conflict

The project labor agreement proposal by Dan Olson — a city councilor who’s employed as a union business manager — has some wondering who is being represented: the taxpayer or the union. That ordinance, which could directly benefit the construction trade unions, will be reviewed Tuesday night by the Superior (WI) City Council.

Mayor Dave Ross has little doubt the proposal represents the union’s interests over those of the taxpayer. “I think it is a conflict of interest,” Ross said.

Wisconsin law states “No local public official may use his or her public position or office to obtain financial gain or anything of substantial value” for himself, immediate family or an associated organization.

Olson acknowledges his proposal would benefit local union workers — that’s his intent — by requiring an agreement on city contracts that would assure jobs for local labor.

“The person ultimately who would have to decide whether he or she thinks there is a violation of law here is your district attorney,” said Jonathan Becker of the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board. He said the proposal could lead to union jobs, but it doesn’t require them, which could make the potential benefit “remote and speculative.”

However, as an authorized representative of the trades, he “should not use his official position to gain something for the union. That’s a factual question, and I don’t know the answer to that,” Becker said.

District Attorney Dan Blank was out of the office this week and won’t be available for comment until Monday.

Olson said he has every intention of presenting the proposal from his position on the council, participating in the discussion and voting on it. He noted that he previously was criticized for abstaining on a vote that directly affected members of Local 1091, the union he represents.

City Attorney Frog Prell said he wasn’t being critical and was seeking more information about the nature of Olson’s employment after Olson brought an issue to the floor, discussed it, and then abstained from the April vote.

At that time, because Olson stood to gain nothing, Prell said he was confident Olson could have voted on that issue, which involved letting a contract on a public works project.

“If I was critical of anything, I was critical of him bringing the matter forward, speaking to the issue on the council floor in favor of a particular outcome and then bailing on the vote,” Prell said. “In my world, if you really feel conflicted on a matter, you withdraw from that matter completely. You don’t stay in the fracas. You don’t speak to issues. You don’t try to be persuasive with your nine other councilors and then bail on the vote. You’re either all in or you’re all out.”

When Supervisor Jeff Isackson of the Douglas County Board faced a similar decision concerning a resolution requiring project labor agreements on county projects, he abstained from the vote. As an employee of Lakehead Constructors, a member of the Northern Wisconsin Construction and Building Trades Council and member of Local 1091, Isackson said, “I thought it would have been a conflict of interest to vote on it.”

Prell said he would be concerned about a conflict of interest if Olson believed he had anything to gain from requiring project labor agreements on city contracts.

A citizen lodged a conflict of interest complaint in 2006 involving Councilor Tom Bridge. It was investigated by Assistant Attorney General Paul Barnett. He ruled Bridge probably violated the law when he voted for a zoning change needed for a property sale when his firm stood to gain about $823 from the $350,000 deal. Bridge’s quick action to have the vote reconsidered without his participation “largely mitigated the conflict,” Barnett wrote in the decision.

Olson doesn’t deny that he stands to gain a small benefit if the council adopts the ordinance, but said that isn’t his primary objective.

“The bottom line is to get local labor,” Olson said. “... The local dollar turns over seven times in a community, and if we’ve got local people working on those jobs, they live here, they pay their taxes here, they buy their $4 gallon of gas here, and they buy their groceries here. There’s that cycle and that’s what I’m doing it for.

“As far as my position as a business manager, there is no doubt that I would get a small compensation in the form of working dues,” he said.

(superiortelegram.com)

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