A win for transparency in Spokane County – union says “no reason to fear open meetings”

Jul 8, 2021

Spokane County has announced it has agreed to a new contract with the Spokane County Public Works Guild – a contract that was negotiated in public, as citizens have demanded.

In 2018, Spokane County joined several other governments in requiring collective bargaining talks – the negotiations over salaries and benefits for public workers – be transparent and open to public observation.

While some other unions have dismissed such transparency and even threatened violence, the Public Works Guild moved forward with the negotiations and proved they could work. From today’s Spokesman-Review:

Ultimately the public works guild agreed to public bargaining for a few reasons.

First, [John] Preston [of the Public Works Guild] said the guild anticipated no one was going to show up to the negotiations anyway, so they’d effectively still be private. That assumption proved correct – Preston noted no members of the public attended the bargaining sessions.

Second, Preston said the guild believed if the argument went to the courts, the county was going to win.

And third, the guild felt its contract requests were reasonable, so there was no reason to fear open meetings, Preston said.

Preston has bargained for public works for more than a decade. He said the public meetings didn’t feel much different from the dozens of private ones he’s been a part of negotiating.

“It felt strange to have it recorded, but you kind of got used to that,” he said.

Unfortunately, other unions still want to conduct the sessions behind closed doors, away from any oversight. They are upset that both Spokane County and the City of Spokane passed a popular measure requiring transparency. In the city’s case, it’s the law – passed by nearly 80% of voters.

For many years, these negotiations with unions who represent local government workers have been conducted behind closed doors. Citizens were not informed about the public spending agreement until the deal was done – even though they are the ones paying the bill. Union members didn’t know what was being negotiated on their behalf until the negotiations were done.

Union contracts for salary and benefits account for a huge portion of public spending. It makes sense that they should not be negotiated in secret.

The city law approved by voters, as well as the county resolution sponsored by Commissioners Josh Kerns and Al French, allow government employees to see firsthand what offers and counteroffers are being made by union executives in their name. A policy of open public meetings identifies, for both taxpayers and union members, whether one side or the other is being deceptive or unreasonable. Openness would quickly reveal who, if anyone, is acting in bad faith in spending public money.

Taxpayers should be able to follow the process and hold government officials accountable for the decisions they make on our behalf. Local media should be allowed to cover the process and inform the public, so that citizens can be aware how public money is being spent. Transparency in public spending is never a bad thing. 

So, it is curious unions are putting up such a fight against openness.  In late December, one union leader sent a letter to the city saying they “won’t allow it” and threatened a “bar room brawl just may break out in the streets.” Unions have also filed a lawsuit against Spokane city and county taxpayers.

Unions know collective bargaining transparency is not unusual. It is the norm in nearly half the states, including neighboring Idaho. In fact, Gordon Smith of the Washington State Council of County and City Employees told the Spokesman-Review last month that the negotiations held in Coeur d’Alene are “not a problem.”

Open collective bargaining talks are not controversial and there is no reason to keep them secret. 

Explaining why the Pullman School District embraces collective bargaining transparency, the district’s finance manager Diane Hodge said, “We just think it’s fair for all of the members to know what’s being offered on both sides.”

Lincoln County, Kittitas County, Ferry County and others have also adopted a policy of transparent talks.

The public should always have the right to know what tradeoffs and promises led to final and binding contract agreements - especially when those agreements lock in millions and sometimes billions of dollars of annual taxpayer spending. 

The state’s Open Public Meetings Act says that the people “do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good” for them to know, and “the people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.” 

Good government is transparent government. What are union bosses trying to hide?