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Union Asks Task Force Probe of Rent Board

November 28, 1985|ALAN CITRON | Times Staff Writer

A union representing more than half of the Santa Monica Rent Control Board employees has urged that an independent task force be appointed to investigate union allegations that the agency has misspent public money, harassed staff members and withheld important information from the public.

The Employees Action Committee, which is negotiating for a wage hike, called for the investigation in a flyer distributed to community leaders and residents. The handout characterized board members as "Five Blind Mice" and challenged administrator Howell Tumlin's management skills.

Maria Peluso, the union's vice president, said Tumlin and the board have abused their management authority. "We're not raising a big stink because we want a lot of money," Peluso said. "This is the culmination of years of (labor) problems. We're at our wits' end, and we don't know what to do."

Tumlin denied all the allegations of impropriety, calling the flyer a "propaganda sheet composed of inaccuracies and fabrications." He said the independent task force is unnecessary and that the handout reflects the union's frustration with stalled wage negotiations.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 8, 1985 Home Edition Westside Part 9 Page 6 Column 2 Zones Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
In the Nov. 28 Westside Section, Maria Peluso, the vice president of a union representing Santa Monica Rent Control Board employees, was quoted as saying "there may be malfeasance" on the board. Peluso said she actually used the word "misfeasance."

"We've been negotiating a (pay raise) for more than eight months, and we have arrived at an impasse," Tumlin said. "The mediator has been unable to bring the sides together. That's the underlying issue here."

Three of the five commissioners--elected officials who operate independently of the council--who were contacted by The Times said they supported Tumlin and denied allegations of wrongdoing in the agency. Board Chairwoman Eileen Lipson said the union members, numbering about 30 of the board's approximately 40 employees, seem to have become embittered over unrealistic job expectations.

'Baseless' Criticism

"I'm not sure what would make these people happy," Lipson said. "They want self-determination. They don't want to be employees. It seems to me that most of their criticism is baseless."

Commissioner Wayne Bauer agreed. "I think it's irresponsible . . . " he said of the flyer. "I'm starting to wonder what's happening with our employees. They've taken responsible positions in the past. But they're starting to slide away from that. Some of these charges may be libelous."

Commissioner David Finkel, a labor lawyer, said he has heard the union voice similar complaints before. Finkel called Tumlin a "good administrator" and accused the union of trying to "advance its bargaining position."

Commissioners Leslie Lambert and Patricia Nagler could not be reached for comment.

The flyer, an Employees Action Committee newsletter called "Insight Into Santa Monica Rent Control," was written by Mary Dresser, a former board employee. The union said it is being distributed to about 2,000 people. The lead story calls for a "probe" of rent board activities, charging that Tumlin and the board "engage in coercive tactics, arbitrary firings . . . cover-ups, slippery ethics and abuses of power."

Tumlin and the board are characterized as a "cancer" on rent control. The union alleges that the board failed to account for funds allocated for positions that were never filled, purchased computers that should have been leased, required hearing examiners to change decisions in violation of their ethics and suppressed an annual report.

"It's very strong," said Dresser, a union volunteer who is challenging her dismissal as the board's public information officer. "But this is what the union wanted. What they're saying is that Tumlin should be questioned."

Said Peluso: "We're saying there may be malfeasance and we'd like to have an investigation. If we're proved wrong, we're proved wrong. But we're asking these questions. Mr. Tumlin can perceive that these allegations are standard management-labor tools in negotiations. But at this point, I'm not interested in what his perceptions are."

The board has not formally responded, but Tumlin and individual commissioners rebutted the allegations in interviews. Finkel said money for unfilled positions is carried over to the following year's budget. He denied that hearing examiners are forced to violate their ethics, saying that supervisors make what amount to "technical" changes in their work.

Poorly Written Report

Tumlin said the board leases its computers in accordance with city policy. He denied that the board suppressed an annual report, saying the document was rejected because it was incomplete and poorly written.

"The board and I are eager to find a way to reach an agreement with the union," said Tumlin. "We're hopeful that they'll continue to discuss the issues with us. . . . But this newsletter is nonsense."

Peluso, however, said tension between the union and management has been building for several years and will not be solved with a new contract. But she acknowledged that the union has been unhappy with negotiations.

In another flyer distributed last month the union, which represents clerical workers, secretaries, investigators, administrative analysts, petitioners and hearing examiners, called board management "capricious and vindictive."

A state mediator tried to bring the two sides together. But the effort failed and people close to the negotiations say the union may now be close to striking. Terms of the negotiations are private, but the union leadership confirmed that it is advising its membership to reject the board's final offer.

The union is scheduled to discuss the contract and other labor matters Wednesday.

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