January 31, 2014 in Opinion

Editorial: Any progress in disclosure laws worthy

 

The Washington Legislature has a possible remedy for the frustrations of Spokane City Council members and residents unable to figure out how negotiations with the Spokane Police Guild seem to have blocked – so far – implementation of an independent ombudsman.

Senate Bill 6183 would remove provisions in the state’s open-meeting law that exempt contract talks between government agencies and unions representing their employees. Now, the two sides work out a deal in private that the public gets to examine only when it is before a council, county commission or school board for approval.

In the case of the city’s agreement with the guild, terms were not made available until union members had taken a ratification vote. But the council unanimously rejected the contract, with some members complaining they had not been allowed to participate in the negotiations. A revamped contract is expected to go before the council early next month.

SB 6183 would not entitle members to a seat at the table, but the talks would be open to all, including the public.

Representatives of the conservative Freedom Foundation told members of the Senate Government Operations Committee the public should be able to see how state negotiators bargain with billions of tax dollars in the balance. They noted the uproar when a leak to the Seattle Times revealed the city was paying the six-figure salary of the union president, a provision that nevertheless was included in the final contract.

Negotiations are open in Oregon unless both sides want them held in executive session.

Testimony from union representatives focused on the trust nurtured when negotiators can speak candidly. Public talks will encourage grandstanding, they warned.

And, if sunshine is good for labor negotiations, they asked, why not open up party caucuses so the public can monitor horse-trading among legislators?

Good point, and it’s clear by the bill’s overwhelmingly Republican sponsorship that SB 6183 is intended as a warning shot with no realistic chance of passage. But what about a study of the issue?

Other open meeting and open records bills do have a chance.

House Bill 2121, for example, which would provide training for public employees in how to respond to records requests, has already progressed to the Rules Committee. Too often, their initial reaction is “no.”

A joint resolution to be heard next week, RJR 8214, will advance a proposed state constitutional amendment that would prevent the governor from asserting executive privilege when he or she does not want to produce records. Gov. Jay Inslee has foresworn any such intent, and has received an award from the Washington Coalition for Open Government for doing so.

His successors may not be so enlightened. The resolution should be a slam-dunk for legislators.

Unfortunately, no hearing has yet been set on House Bill 2369, which would raise advance notification requirements on impending legislation. Too often, short notice means no one from Eastern Washington will be able to testify on a bill.

With other legislative business stalemated, even incremental progress on sunshine laws would justify some celebration when this short session is over.

To respond to this editorial online, go to www.spokesman.com and click on Opinion under the Topics menu.


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