Progressive income tax advocates have hoped to use local governments to push for statewide implementation of that tax. While that stratagem may soon get the kibosh in King County Superior Court, the concept has proven effective so far with another political movement aiming to bring greater transparency to public union labor negotiations.
“There are plenty of county employees that are not represented by unions, and the union employees would be treated just the same as those other employees,” Commissioner Laura Osiadacz said at the November 7 meeting. “This would just bring both sets of employees having equal opportunities. The people of Kittitas county…are the taxpayers, and they have the right to know how their tax dollars are being spent.”
This makes Kittitas the fourth local government in Washington state to have done so; the others are Lincoln County and the Tukwila and Pullman School Districts. Although Washington state has a very strong Open Public Meetings Act, collective bargaining agreement (CBA) negotiations are exempt. A dozen states, including Idaho and Oregon, have their CBA negotiations open to the public.
“This is a small but significant step for open government in this state,” said Freedom Foundation Outreach Coordinator Matthew Hayward wrote in a statement. He created the template ordinance Kittitas County used for their resolution.
He wrote further, “The taxpayers have every right to see how their money is being spent, particularly when the elected officials negotiating on their behalf may very well have accepted campaign contributions from the same unions they’re supposed to bargain against. That’s a clear conflict of interest, and the public deserves to know who its representatives are actually representing.”
However, public labor union leaders testifying during the public comment prior to the vote warned that opening these talks to outside ears make it difficult for negotiators to speak honestly.
Business Agent Steve Bruchman for the Yakima-based Teamster Local 760 told the board that in 20 years of negotiating in the public sector, “I’ve seen a lot of various things happen…that is best done in a trusted environment in which the parties can speak openly, honestly and without reservation as to who may or may not pop in and hear part of a conversation that started two meetings ago, and extrapolate from that wrong understanding.”
Yet, Commissioner Obie O’Brien said that “We always get the calls about the things that are discussed over the ‘dinner table.’ More often than not, there’s misunderstandings.” A former member of a private sector union, he added that “the only thing it would change is it would allow me to tell the people I represent ‘Yes, you can also see all the rest of the stuff that’s going on.’”
Similar transparency legislation has been introduced at the state level but has repeatedly floundered. However, a bottom-up movement could eventually provide the needed impetus, says WPC Government Reform Director Jason Mercier.
One of its strengths is that it’s hard to argue against, he said. “More information doesn’t hurt anybody, except those who want the process secret.”
Open meetings could also prevent prolonged negotiations resulting in statewide teacher strikes, which “whip up resentment in community over such small things” being bargained over, he added. “It’s really hard to argue against not only from the perspective of the taxpayer…but also for the (public sector union) members, because there are tradeoffs. You kind of want to know as an employee what the tradeoffs are.”
The concept also transcends political lines. In a May 2016 legal brief, President Obama’s Department of Justice included several ways to improve the Seattle Police Department’s accountability. One of them was “possible modifications to the collective bargaining process to enhance the transparency of union negotiations.”
Franklin County could be the next local government in Washington to embrace this trend. In a recent op-ed co-written with Mercier for the Tri-City Herald, County Auditor Matt Beaton wrote that “the people have a right to know how public spending decisions are made. Ending collective bargaining secrecy and opening public employee union contract negotiations to the public, as other states and cities have done, is a practical and ethical way to achieve that standard. There is no reason Franklin County should not be a model in our state for open and transparent government and also embrace this important reform.”
But if Lincoln County is any indication, that road may be a bumpy one. After opening CBA negotiations last year, Teamsters Local 690 refused to bargain unless the meeting was closed. When the commissioners refused, they walked out and later filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the Washington State Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC). That commission later dismissed the complaint in January.