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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane County commissioners open union contract negotiations to the public

Spokane County Commissioners Josh Kerns and Al French hold a meeting Sept. 12, 2017, in the county’s Public Works Building. On Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018, they voted to stop negotiating union contracts behind closed doors, drawing praise from open-government advocates and rebukes from union leaders. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane County commissioners voted Tuesday to stop negotiating union contracts behind closed doors, drawing praise from open-government advocates and rebukes from union leaders.

The move means members of the public and media will be able to witness the collective bargaining process in real time, even though state law allows negotiations to take place in private meetings.

“I saw today’s action as a benefit for both the employees and for the taxpayers out there,” Commissioner Al French said in an interview. “Salaries are our largest cost, and the citizens ought to know how we’re negotiating contracts and how we’re trying to represent the best interests of both the taxpayers and our employees.”

French and Commissioner Josh Kerns passed the resolution while Commissioner Mary Kuney was working in Olympia. In a text message late Tuesday, she said she was not familiar with the language of the resolution.

The resolution states that copies of any bargaining proposals will be posted on the county’s website within two days, notices will be posted before all bargaining sessions and negotiations will take place “in a manner that is viewable by the public in real time, either in person or on video.”

County bargaining representatives will still be allowed to meet privately “to discuss negotiating strategy, goals and methods” and meet with union representatives to discuss specific personnel issues. The resolution does not permit members of the public to provide feedback during bargaining sessions.

The transparency policy follows several years of lobbying by the libertarian-leaning Freedom Foundation, which has offices in Washington, Oregon and California.

Spokane County is now the largest public employer in the state to enact such a policy, the Freedom Foundation said in a news release. Lincoln County was the first to do so in 2016, prompting a series of unfair labor practice complaints that are still being litigated. Ferry County, Kittitas County and the Pullman School District have passed similar measures.

“Bringing greater transparency to the collective bargaining process benefits taxpayers, who deserve to see how their money is allocated, union members, who should be able to see their union in action, and journalists, who should be able to watchdog the process,” Matthew Hayward, the outreach director at the Freedom Foundation, said in the news release.

Typically, contracts for Washington’s public sector unions are not made public until they are finalized and presented to policymakers for a yes-or-no vote. At the state level, the Legislature has the final say. At the county level, the decision rests with the commissioners.

Washington’s Open Public Meetings Act carves out an exemption for collective bargaining sessions, though it does not require they be held behind closed doors. Union leaders say privacy enables them to have frank, honest dialogue during negotiations.

To make that point, Val Holstrom, principal officer of Teamsters Local 690 in Lincoln County, described a hypothetical scenario in which corrections officers discover a safety violation in the county jail and demand it be fixed during contract negotiations.

“Do they really want that violation brought up in public?” Holstrom said, “they” being county officials. “Those are the kinds of things that get brought up in collective bargaining that may not be in the county’s best interest.”

Gordon Smith, who represents most unionized Spokane County employees for the Washington State Council of County and City Employees, argued the bargaining process was transparent enough already because the commissioners approve or reject finalized contracts in public hearings and those contracts are publicly available on the county’s website.

Smith said he was blindsided by Tuesday’s announcement and that the commissioners should have communicated with union leaders before passing the resolution.

“The big deal, to me, is their lack of communication,” Smith said. “I thought our relationship was better than that.”

French and Kerns acknowledged they had not discussed the transparency proposal with union leaders before Tuesday’s vote. But they insisted the public bargaining process would be good for union members.

“What the leadership does, the leadership will do,” French said. “I think I was a little bit more concerned about the rank and file. As a past union member myself, I’ve been one of those rank-and-file, card-carrying members, and it’s always good to know what the leadership is doing on your behalf.”

The commissioners said the resolution would not apply to pending contract negotiations, including an ongoing dispute with the union representing deputy prosecutors. The county recently finished most of its major contract negotiations, so the first public bargaining sessions won’t happen for months, if not a couple of years, the commissioners said.

Also Tuesday, the commissioners approved a new contract for the union representing Spokane County sheriff’s deputies. Kevin Richey, president of the union and mayor of Airway Heights, said the contract includes some “modest” cost-of-living increases and the union is pleased the contract was approved on schedule.

Kerns and French said they had been considering the public bargaining policy for years and believed many members of the public would support it.

“It makes it so these types of negotiations can never again turn into a kind of ‘He said, she said’-type situation because it’s all done in the open,” Kerns said. “It’s not done behind closed doors.”