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Virgil Swing: Taking parties out of local politics

The primary election for Duluth races arrives in less than two weeks, and I hope most residents eligible to vote will do so. With this in mind, I'll make my biennial plea for voters to note which candidates are endorsed by whom, and to think abou...

Virgil Swing

The primary election for Duluth races arrives in less than two weeks, and I hope most residents eligible to vote will do so. With this in mind, I'll make my biennial plea for voters to note which candidates are endorsed by whom, and to think about what that means.

Two city council races and one school board contest are on the Sept. 13

ballot. They're non-partisan bodies under the law, but that hasn't stopped the DFL party from picking its choices in the contests. Though a law made the council and board non-partisan, it isn't against the law for political parties to endorse, they just should respect the nature of these races and stay out.

It's not that DFLers ignore what's right while the Republicans respect the process. A GOP endorsement in these contests would be a kiss of death

in this city where folks

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find it hard to vote for

Republicans.

I consider it a more serious problem when candidates seek and accept the endorsement of unions representing those who work for the city or school district. Again, it's not illegal for the AFSCME and Education Minnesota to endorse, but that also should be a kiss of death for candidates - yet sadly isn't.

Though some will deny it, council and board candidates are running for posts that represent the management side of the labor-management divide. Why should voters elect candidates favored by the unions that sit across the bargaining table from management?

Councilors and board members aren't directly involved in those negotiations but should play a bigger role in them, and when they do their views should be those of taxpayers, not public employees. Councilors and board members set the budgets that partially determine our property-tax burden and should not come to that process favoring the union side.

If you think this isn't a problem, read the city contract with Local 66 of AFSCME, which represents the biggest group of city employees. The contract is available on the city's website, and it reads like it was written by the union and turned over to city officials for adoption.

The school district's contract with teachers and other school employees also looks like the union wrote it. It's no accident that, in recent years, Education Minnesota and our just-retired school superintendent spoke of negotiations like they were a love-fest.

City and district officials have talked poverty whenever they discussed their respective budgets in recent years. Mayor Don Ness on Aug. 25 told of branch library closings, layoffs and other cuts. These follow other city service cuts in recent years. There's no good sign that the future won't hold more of the same, but I heard no talk of scaling back the cost of union contracts.

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Classes in city schools have increased in size, offerings have been cut and school officials have warned of worse to come. Besides the council and school board races, three referendum questions will be on the Nov. 8 ballot, asking Duluth voters how large a special property tax levy they want to help meet school operating costs.

If all three fail, school officials suggest even more dire financial straits lie ahead for the district. Besides picking one level of higher property tax levies, voters can reject all three.

For reasons I was unable to determine when I inquired recently, local Education Minnesota members had not yet endorsed candidates for races on the

primary and general-election ballots. But they can be expected to endorse the three former teacher union members who appear on the ballots.

I criticized efforts earlier this year by Wisconsin Gov. Walker to strip most state and school employees of their collective-bargaining rights. The answer, I said, is not to keep them from bargaining but rather to be tough-enough negotiators so fringe benefit costs are affordable.

Of course, it's hard to

be a tough bargainer with public employees if you owe your position in elective office to the unions representing them. I don't think Duluth is ready for Walker's draconian policies, but voters should keep in mind what an endorsement by the unions suggests will happen if the ones they favor are elected.

It doesn't have to happen -- even in Duluth.

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Budgeteer opinion columnist Virgil Swing has been writing about Duluth for many years. Contact him at vswing2@chartermi.net .

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