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SEIU 99 president — and board candidate — a union concern

Vanessa Romo | April 23, 2014

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Courtni Pugh SEIU Local 99 Executive Director

Courtni Pugh SEIU Local 99 Executive Director

Barbara Torres, president of SEIU Local 99, the local school workers union with 45,000 members, is raising alarms within the union over her intention to run for an LA Unified school board seat.

The potential conflict is over her role as a member of the union’s bargaining committee, which is negotiating a new labor contract with the district and school board, while she is simultaneously launching a campaign against Bennett Kayser in the 2015 race for the board’s District 5 seat.

“We’re going to launch an investigation and ask our lawyers to find out if this is even allowed,” Courtni Pugh, the union’s executive director told LA School Report. “This is unchartered territory for us and something we’ve never dealt with before, so we just don’t know.”

“But I can assure you,” she added, “that we aim for the highest ethical and transparent behavior at every level of the local in order to serve the members of Local 99.”

Making this more difficult, Pugh said, is that Local 99 has not received formal notification of Torres’ candidacy. As of today, Torres remains an official candidate in the race, according to the City Ethics Commission.

Repeated efforts over several weeks to reach Torres and her campaign manager Lewis Myers of Casitas Strategic for comment have gone unanswered.

Another potential minefield for Torres is that she also serves on the union’s political action committee alongside her twin sister, Kathryn, who is the committee’s chairwoman. Several union officials said if Torres were to win an SEIU endorsement for the board seat, both she and her sister would have to recuse themselves from any PAC involvement in the race for that seat.

Otherwise, it leaves open at least a perception that Kathryn Torres has unfair influence of the committee’s spending and fundraising decisions even if the decisions are made by others.

From the district’s perspective, Dave Holmquist, General Counsel for LA Unified, says there’s nothing to prevent Barbara Torres from running for the board seat. However, were she to win, she’d have to give up her both her jobs as a district-employed special education aide and union president.

“Certainly she would be unable to perform any duties related in any way to the other job which so many things related to actions by a board member would have an impact, either directly or indirectly on Local 99,” Holmquist told LA School Report. “So if we even tried to carve out some set of things that she could do, it would be so limited as to prevent her from meaningfully being able to be a board member.”

An effort to reach Kayser for comment was unsuccessful. A message left with his office was not returned.

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