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Lincoln County opens union negotiations to the public, in a first for Washington

By opening labor negotiations to the public, Lincoln County has drawn attention to a highly politicized debate that has roiled the governor’s office for more than a decade.

The board of county commissioners of Lincoln County, just west of Spokane County, voted last week to allow citizens to observe collective bargaining sessions with county employee unions. Those negotiations previously were conducted in private. Salary and benefit proposals often were withheld from public view until a final vote by the commissioners.

“We just want to make sure we’re doing everything we can to be open and transparent with our citizens,” Board Chairman Rob Coffman said, adding that the resolution has some constraints. “The public does not get to engage or be a part of the conversation. They only get to observe.”

That move makes Lincoln County the only jurisdiction in the state to require open collective bargaining, according to Jason Mercier of the Washington Policy Center, a conservative think tank. While isolated to county employees, it mirrors a broader push by government transparency groups to pull the curtain from the bargaining process.

“Whenever you’re talking about the spending of public dollars, that has to be done out in the open,” Mercier said.

Since 2004, collective bargaining sessions for public employees have been exempt from Washington’s Open Public Meetings Act. At the state level, labor unions hash out deals directly with the governor’s administration, which then gives a proposal to the Legislature for an up or down vote.

Those negotiations, and any records of them, are typically withheld until new salaries and benefit packages are provided in the state budget. Mercier said that allows for some potentially shady deals.

“Think about what happens every August: We’re told that some unions are potentially facing a strike,” he said. “But none of the workers know what they’re striking over. They have no idea what the state is offering, and they have no idea what the union is asking for.”

Proponents of the exemption argue that accountability is built into the system. After bargaining teams reach a deal, it’s brought to a vote of the full union, then scrutinized by the state Office of Financial Management, then approved or rejected by the Legislature.

“The taxpayers and the elected officials have the final say,” said Tim Welch, a spokesman for the Washington Federation of State Employees.

At stake are hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars. Salaries and benefits made up 16.8 percent of the state’s general fund in 2014, down from a peak of 21 percent in 2008, according to the Office Financial Management.

Franklin Plaistowe, the state’s assistant director of human resources, said deals made through the bargaining process are rarely shot down by the governor or the Legislature.

“If the Legislature says, ‘Hey, this isn’t working for us,’ then the parties are left to go back to the table and find something that does work,” he said.

Welch said closed-door negotiations prevent the parties from “grandstanding.” And Plaistowe said negotiating parties are more likely to have frank, candid or controversial discussions when there’s no audience.

“Positions change back and forth over time,” Welch said. “And it doesn’t help to have someone vilified for a position they took early on in the process.”

Welch accused the Washington Policy Center of concealing a partisan motive: “Every two years at about this time, they raise this issue, not for transparency reasons but for political gain – to defeat the incumbent Democratic governor.”

Republican senators last year introduced bills that would have subjected collective bargaining sessions to the Open Public Meetings Act and the Public Records Act, but neither survived beyond initial committee hearings.

State Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, said the closed collective bargaining process disproportionately benefits Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, who receives large campaign contributions from workers’ unions.

“You have the governor’s biggest backers, essentially the people putting him into office, working with him while he negotiates their salaries,” Baumgartner said.

An Inslee spokesman didn’t immediately provide a statement on Monday.

Mercier claims other states generally use more transparent processes than Washington. Idaho lawmakers last year voted unanimously to open collective bargaining to the public. Colorado voters adopted a similar measure in 2014.

Coffman, the Lincoln County commissioner, said the board opened its collective bargaining sessions to build public trust and encourage voters to support a November ballot initiative that would raise the sales tax by 0.3 percent to pay for more sheriff’s deputies.

The Teamsters union representing Lincoln County employees didn’t offer an opinion on the resolution. But representative Joe Kuhn said in an email that the Lincoln County Commission acted “without any notice to the union.”

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