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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Ruling paves way for open bargaining

Lincoln County commissioners figured they had to be transparent if they expected its conservative electorate to approve a tax increase to pay for more sheriff’s deputies.

They figured right.

In September, they announced that collective bargaining sessions with employee unions would be open to the public. In November, 58 percent of county voters passed the three-tenths of 1 percent sales-tax increase.

However, a local union was not happy with transparency, so it filed claims with the Public Employment Relations Commission. On Tuesday, PERC dismissed the consolidated complaint. The bottom line is that the union failed to show how open government amounts to an unfair labor practice.

PERC’s decision paves the way for other jurisdictions to do the same, and they should.

The mood of the public is deeply cynical, and government merely exacerbates the distrust by taking labor negotiations behind closed doors. This, in turn, causes many people to believe the process is rigged.

Lincoln County commissioners correctly gauged that an effort to open up its decision-making process would increase trust. They also correctly surmised that the people who ultimately pay workers ought to be privy to the negotiations that determine how much.

This isn’t how it’s done in the rest of the state.

The state Open Public Meetings Act grants an exemption when it comes to collective bargaining, and local governments eagerly take advantage of it. The state Legislature ought to end that exemption.

Unions say opening the talks would politicize the process and drive out frank discussions. But the process is already political, with unions throwing support behind generous elected officials during election season. As for the alleged toll on candor, we’d like to know what could no longer be said. Perhaps the public would, too.

The details in these negotiations matter. What arguments did labor make? What was the response of government negotiators?

The public could learn a lot about governing by listening in. For instance, they could learn how a tax-limiting initiative has caused a shortage of public safety workers. This was the case in Lincoln County.

Pay and benefits account for the lion’s share of government budgets. Those totals should be determined in public. Nobody is asking for free-for-alls in which attendees leap to their feet to object or cheer.

In Lincoln County, the public may only observe, and negotiators can still formulate their strategies in private. But once the two sides come together, it’s a public meeting. That’s reasonable.

By negotiating in private, the government is saying the public can’t be trusted. So it shouldn’t be surprised when the public responds in kind.

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