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Slate of the Union

Local CSEA members claim that AFSCME elections process is biased for incumbents

Wanda Lubinski wants to go to Las Vegas.

More specifically, she wants to be elected by the regional membership of the Civil Service Employees Association to serve as delegate to the biennial convention of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, to be held in the sin city this June. But Lubinski, and some of the other candidates competing for 38 spots on the regional delegation, charge that the odds are stacked against them by procedural rules that favor CSEA insiders.

“There are just so many advantages to being the regional president or an incumbent,” said Lubinski. “It is hard to imagine a challenger having a fair shot.”

One of those advantages, Lubinski said, is that under the AFSCME elections process, the regional president’s slate—a group of 38 people who are running together to become delegates to the convention—is more likely to be put first on the voting ballot.

“People usually vote for the first slate,” said Lubinski. “Getting that position on the ballot really makes a difference.”

Stephen Madarasz, spokesman for CSEA, said that for all other CSEA elections, a random process is used to determine the order in which the slates will appear on the ballot. Each slate is given a number, and then all numbers are thrown in a hat to decide the order. Voting members can either vote for a complete slate or pick 38 names at random.

But for AFSCME, there is a nomination meeting in which candidates are called from the floor by a chairperson. The order in which the chair recognizes nominations (which are done simply by having nominees stand up) determines where each slate will appear on the ballot.

Lubinski said that, systematically, the chairperson calls on the regional president first.

“Let’s face it. The chairperson has orders and the regional president almost automatically goes first,” said Lubinski. “For this election, one person has all the power and decides who to call first and who to place where. It is totally biased and unfair.”

Madarasz said this has been the election process for AFSCME for nearly 20 years, and it has been reviewed by the election committee and board of directors of CSEA. He noted that there is a protest process candidates can pursue if they have complaints, but so far, that has not been done.

“This is a very open process,” said Madarasz. “It is not like someone is in a room making this up all by themselves. The procedures we use have outside scrutiny by the federal Labor Department, but it also has an internal procedure for questioning the process.”

Kathy Garrison, Capital Region president for CSEA, whose slate was selected for the first position on the ballot, also disagreed with Lubinski’s charges.

“It is not automatic that incumbents get the first pick,” said Garrison. “The regional director holds the nomination, and I was standing a good one minute before any other slate, so he noticed me first.”

Betty Eagan, who is running on the Members for Members slate, also expressed concerned about the ballot process.

“I think it is unfair,” said Eagan. “It doesn’t go along with CSEA. It is not in true form, and it is not what we normally do. I think it gives the appearance of being unfair.”

Lubinski said that incumbents have another unfair advantage because they have access to committee members’ personal information, including home addresses and phone numbers. She said that if she tried to obtain similar information, she would receive only a committee member’s office number. And since it is against the rules to campaign on state time, or to use state equipment to do so, the only way to lobby chairpeople during an election is to mail or call them at home.

“I could get lucky and find the number in the phone book, but that is not the same as having a list in front of me,” said Lubinski.

Garrison said that lists of committee members are available to all candidates, and many committee members are listed in the telephone directory.

“I got my information from the same places that they can obtain their information,” said Garrison.

Madarasz said that under CSEA rules, an incumbent is allowed to use personal information only for doing union business—not for an election.

But Lubinski insists that there should be a system that would assure that all candidates have equal access to the same information.

“Obviously it’s not an unbiased process, nor is it anything that can be called democratic,” said Lubinski.

—Nancy Guerin

Sky’s the Limit

A federal court ruling gives media conglomerates even more leeway to form massive corporate mega-mergers

A federal court ruling on Feb. 19 delivered a dramatic victory to media corporations by eliminating important restrictions on media ownership. Analysts are predicting that mega-mergers of the past will seem like small potatoes compared to the corporate deals that will be possible under the new rules.

The decision “strips away a critical part of the few remaining checks and balances on media conglomerate power,” said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. The ruling weakens two of the main regulatory barriers that have limited the power of television moguls. The first is a 60-year old Federal Communications Commission rule that limits the number of broadcast TV stations a single company can own. The cap is currently set so that a single company cannot reach more than 35 percent of the national TV audience. The second FCC rule prevented a company from owning both a cable channel and a broadcast station in the same city.

The decision in the lawsuit—which was filed by four of the biggest media groups, AOL Time Warner, Viacom, News Corp and NBC—declared these limits “arbitrary and capricious” and not in the public’s best interest. The cable/broadcast restriction was fully overturned, and the station ownership cap rule was sent back to the FCC for reconsideration.

Both financial analysts and consumer advocates agree that the court decision—unless reversed on appeal or mitigated by congressional action—will dramatically alter the media landscape. Media deals that were impossible yesterday seem all but inevitable today. America Online can now buy NBC. Comcast, which is planning to buy AT&T Broadband, could buy Disney.

The media moguls reacted with predictable enthusiasm to the decision. Paul T. Cappacio, general counsel of AOL Time Warner, told The New York Times that the rules were “an anachronism” and were “not remotely necessary to protect competition.”

Consumer advocates, however, say the ruling will lead to bigger and more powerful monopolies, accelerating the current trend of consolidation. “The ‘prize’ these companies seek is a digital land grab,” Chester said. Under these new rules, gargantuan media conglomerates will have the power to control the flow of information and therefore shape public opinion. “It will be freedom for a half-dozen major companies, not the public,” Chester said.

The ruling comes on the heels of other regulatory moves aimed at removing barriers to media mergers. The FCC currently is considering a rule change that will allow joint ownership of newspaper and broadcast outlets. A recent study conducted by an alliance of public interest groups, including the Center for Digital Democracy, the Media Access Project and Consumer Federation of America, shows that fully two-thirds of all existing newspaper markets and one-seventh of TV markets are monopolies.

Researchers also conclude that the elimination of the cross-ownership ban will cut the number of independent newspaper owners by half. Last month, the Bush administration also put forward a proposal that critics say will weaken oversight of media companies. The measure would shift oversight of media and cable mergers from the Federal Trade Commission to the Department of Justice. Members of Congress, consumer advocates, policy experts and two FTC commissioners have criticized the proposal, saying the DOJ would be more lenient on media mergers than the FTC. They also complain that the two Bush appointees who drafted the proposal—FTC chairman Timothy Muris and assistant attorney general Charles James—did it behind closed doors, seeking input only from prominent corporate lawyers and not consumer groups.

The cumulative effect of the latest court ruling, along with other FCC initiatives, could be an unprecedented wave of media mergers. “One media company will be able to control several TV and radio stations, the cable system and a newspaper in a community,” Chester said. “How can such power be healthy for democracy or competition?”

—Laksmi Chaudry

There will be a protest march against the FCC to resist media mega-mergers on March 22 in Washington, D.C. The Center for Digital Democracy’s filing with the FCC contains results of their media consolidation study, and the center also offers a simple guide to complicated FCC rules and why they matter. Also, MediaChannel.org’s in-depth guide explains the issues, features a global media ownership chart, and offers tools to get involved.

It’s the End of the Hemp Industry as We Know It

Even though it’s not possible to get high from hemp, DEA passes ban on all hemp products containing THC

Get your Hemprella while you can. And your hemp chips, hemp coffee and hemp waffles, too. On Feb. 6, many of those products joined heroin, cocaine and ecstasy on the growing list of Schedule I controlled substances—the group of drugs considered by the Drug Enforcement Administration to have “a high potential for abuse” and a “lack of accepted safety.”

The DEA’s decision to effectively ban all products containing detectable amounts of THC, the chemical in pot that gets you high, was announced last October by agency administrator Asa Hutchinson, who declared with apparent horror that “many Americans do not know that . . . hemp cannot be produced without producing marijuana.” The rule gave retailers four months to get THC-containing hemp products off their shelves. According to DEA spokeswoman Rogene Waite in Washington, D.C., “the burden is on retailers” to identify and dispose of THC-containing products come the deadline. Seattle DEA spokesman Tom O’Brian however, said that the DEA won’t be staging drug raids in the granola aisle. “Is it our responsibility? Yes. Is it our priority? No,” he said.

So just how much hemp would a hemp foods “abuser” have to eat to feel even a tiny buzz? According to Eric Steenstra of hemp-advocacy group Vote Hemp, you’d have to eat around 440 bags of hemp chips “to feel any effect” at all. “I don’t care how good they taste, you just can’t eat that much,” Steenstra said. Scientific tests solicited by hemp-producers consortium Testpledge showed that a person would have to eat more than half a cup of pure hemp oil or nearly a pound of shelled hemp seed a day to produce a positive drug test.

One obvious problem—how to identify which products contain the chemicals without spending thousands on testing and enforcement—has been addressed in ways both creative and absurd. At Whole Foods’ Seattle store, workers were scrambling to pull the hemp nuts, hemp oil and hemp bars before the deadline, on the assumption that the DEA would consider all hemp products to be contraband. “We have to stop selling our hemp oil,” said Whole Foods nutrition-department staffer Jenna Pool. The oil, she added, “might have like .0000001 percent THC.” Whole Foods spokeswoman Kate Lowery said the grocery chain expects its suppliers to comply with the directive.

PCC Natural Markets, meanwhile, has taken a different approach, assuming that as long as a product says it doesn’t contain THC, it doesn’t. PCC spokesperson Goldie Caughlin said she thinks the DEA rule borders on absurdity. “It’s a very overarching, very strange ruling,” Caughlin said. “It’s part of this whole administration’s way of approaching the war on drugs.” As an example of that absurdity, critics of the ruling have pointed to the tortured process by which the DEA determined that personal-care products containing hemp—such as shampoo, lotions and lip balms—probably don’t cause THC to enter the body and shouldn’t be included in the hemp-foods ban. “However, if a personal-care ‘hemp’ product is formulated and designed to be used in a way that causes THC to enter the human body, the product is not exempted from control,” the ruling says.

It’s not as if hemp foods are flying off store shelves. Although organizations like Vote Hemp and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws note that hemp foods are “an almost $5 million industry,” a pre-ban visit to the Whole Foods supermarket turned up exactly four hemp products: A $13 bottle of hemp-seed oil, a $17 container of a greasy green product called “Hempini hemp butter,” some hemp waffles and a box of hemp granola. The granola and waffles were OK; the “butter,” belying its price tag, was bitter and, as one prospective taster who couldn’t quite stomach the stuff put it, “gross.” PCC’s grocery buyer, Stephanie Steiner, said even though the DEA ruling “would not put us in a position where we would turn down or accept items based on it . . . our past experience has been that the hemp items just haven’t been moving.”

So what’s the point of hemp foods, anyway? People who consume hemp products say they provide the fullest possible spectrum of essential fatty acids, the fats that keep your heart healthy, your skin soft and your hormones balanced. Fish oil and flax oil, two other supplements sold in the same section as hemp oil, don’t pack the same nutritious punch, they claim.

Producers of hemp products, a much larger industry that includes body-care products, textiles, bird seed and rope, worry that the ruling will cripple the entire industry. “We’re expecting that they’re going to try to shut it off at the [Canadian] border,” Vote Hemp’s Steenstra said. “If a batch of hemp oil shows up at the border, my guess is that they’re not going to distinguish” between oil bound for legal uses and oil meant for human consumption. Echoing that concern, the largest exporter of hemp seed to the United States, Kenex Ltd. of Canada, announced its intention to sue the United States under the North American Free Trade Agreement, seeking at least $20 million in damages stemming from the DEA’s decision. Since the ruling, Kenex president Jean Laprise said in a statement, “Our U.S. hemp seed and oil sales have virtually ceased. If the DEA is not stopped, we are finished.”

—Erica Barnett

Erica Barnett writes for Seattle Weekly.
Contact her at ebarnett@seattleweekly.com

Spreading the Knowledge
Photo by Teri Currie

The African-American Coalition on AIDS held an open house last Thursday to welcome its new program, Light on the Hill. The program’s workers will visit bars, stores, beauty salons and churches, and chat with people on the streets, to educate the Arbor Hill community about HIV/AIDS. The program will operate after hours, from 7 to 10 PM, in order to reach at-risk people who normally are not out during the day. In addition to the outreach activities, the program also will have a drop-in center located at 100 Henry Johnson Blvd.

 

F.Y.I.

Drawing the Deadline

April 1 is just around the corner, and the age-old question is starting to circulate through the halls of the Capitol building in Albany: Will New York state’s government pass the budget on time? In an effort to guarantee a resounding “yes”—for this year and those that follow—the Republicans of the state Assembly are starting a statewide petition drive to gain public support for their budget-reform plan.

“Schools, community groups and local governments depend on the timely adoption of the state budget,” said Assembly Republican Leader John Faso (R-C Kinderhook). “Under our plan, it will be on time every year.”

Assemblyman Jim Tedisco (R-C
Schenectady) said that forums in Albany, Rochester, Syracuse, Buffalo, Yonkers and New York City will focus on the impact that late budgets have had on schools and nonprofit organizations. The hope is to educate the public and build grassroots public support. In 2001, the budget-reform plan died on the Assembly floor by two votes.

Some components of the Republican plan include establishing binding revenue estimates that would require the state’s comptroller to provide a preliminary economic and revenue forecast by March 1; prohibiting the Legislature from considering non-budget bills after April 1; and mandating the use of the prior fiscal year’s state budget if no budget is agreed on within 60 days of the April 1 deadline.

But for Assemblyman Jack McEneny (D-L Albany), the budget problems are not so simple. He said pressure needs to be put on Gov. George Pataki to stay in Albany and work with Senate Majority leader Joseph Bruno (R-C Troy) and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D- Manhattan) if a budget is to be passed on time. He also questions why the Republicans in the state Senate aren’t working with their Assembly counterparts on this initiative.

“It’s going to be good press—it will get a lot of ink—but it would be of much greater substance if you had a resolution of the Republicans in the Senate for the same thing,” said McEneny. “But, most important of all would be if the pressure were put on Gov. Pataki to stop traveling and start working Albany.”

The first forum will take place today (Thursday, Feb. 28) at 10 AM in room 933 of the Legislative Office Building in Albany.

—N.G.


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