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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Lincoln County leads way on government transparency

It’s no secret that trust in government has undergone serious erosion. The candidacies of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders took off because so many people believe our representative democracy is rigged.

Voters are angry with political parties for manipulating the rules in favor of traditional candidates in the primaries. Many people feel the fix is in with legislatures, county commissions and city councils, too.

This growing cynicism is itself a cancer, gnawing away indiscriminately at good and bad government.

The right way to answer this wave of suspicion is to open up government by making more decisions in public and making information more readily available.

Citizens won’t trust government if government flinches at keeping citizens informed.

Take the case of Lincoln County, which has decided to open to public scrutiny its collective-bargaining sessions with employee unions. The resolution adopted unanimously by the county commission states, in part: “The impression of secret deal-making will be eliminated by making collective bargaining negotiations open to the public.”

County commissioners want voters to approve a November ballot measure to raise the sales tax to pay for more sheriff’s deputies. But because citizens haven’t been privy to past labor talks, they may not be aware of the challenges the county faces in staffing the sheriff’s office.

Like most counties – perhaps all – Lincoln County faces a “structural gap” in its budget. That is, expenses grow faster than tax collections. Property tax increases are limited to 1 percent per year. In addition, county budgets, particularly those in rural settings, were hit hard when the motor vehicle excise tax was abolished.

The state Open Public Meetings Act grants an exemption when it comes to collective bargaining, and before Lincoln County reformed its process, every jurisdiction took advantage of it. We’ve supported bills that end this exemption.

Bargainers say an open process would politicize the process and prevent frank discussions. These arguments are unpersuasive.

It’s already a political process, with the heavy influence of unions on the minds of governors, mayors and commissioners seeking re-election. The people left outside the door are paying for the decisions made by those inside. And we highly doubt honesty would go by the wayside if the public were watching. More likely, it would be cringe-inducing negotiating points that would go unspoken.

Under the new Lincoln County rules, the public may only observe, and observers cannot participate. Negotiators can still formulate their strategies in private.

Critics of transparency say it’s just a strategy to gut the unions. But it could lead to public awareness of the impacts of passing initiatives that have helped create the structural gap.

The key question for government is: Do you trust the public? If the answer is no, don’t expect it in return.