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Sunday, December 8, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Editorial: End collective bargaining secrecy

You might have noticed an insert in today’s paper for Initiative 1608. If, like us, you’re a fan of government accountability, you should give it a look.

I-1608 would require local and state governments to conduct collective bargaining in public. There’d be no more haggling with public employee unions behind closed doors.

Public union contracts that spend millions or even billions of dollars now emerge from secrecy. Negotiators present the contract as a done deal; take it or leave it, taxpayers.

Policy decisions can come out of contract negotiations, too. For example, police might demand concessions on body cameras, or teachers might seek to limit class sizes. Those are important issues, to be sure, and the people paying the bills should get to observe how they are decided.

Open bargaining sessions also would benefit rank-and-file union members, who are just as excluded from seeing the talks. They can only trust that their leaders are negotiating well on their behalf.

I-1608 would change all that. If voters approve it, all public employee contract negotiations would have to be open to the public. Attendees could record the meetings, and the initiative encourages sharing video online so people who can’t attend in person can also see what’s happening.

The initiative doesn’t give activists permission to be disruptive. The right to attend and observe does not include the right to participate. Negotiations would remain between the parties only. They would not become public hearings where anyone can testify.

Government officials and their union counterparts at the negotiating table might object that their conversations are sensitive, that they might be embarrassing at times. Too bad. That’s exactly why the public should get to see them. If one side is negotiating in bad faith or being unreasonably obstinate, that should be known, not hidden. Too often public union negotiations devolve into “he said, she said” sniping.

Washington dodged a bullet a few months ago when Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed a bill that would have erected walls of secrecy around the Legislature. It was a major victory for transparency and the notion that government of the people, by the people and for the people ought to take place in front of the people.

Lawmakers’ attempt to trim Washington’s public records and open meetings laws was not unusual, not by a long shot. Lawmakers whittle away at the public’s right to know almost every year. There’s always some constituency that would prefer just one more exemption that allows them to avoid scrutiny.

In fact, public union contract negotiations used to be open to the public. In 2002, lawmakers passed the Personnel System Reform Act, exempting state-level bargaining from the state’s open meetings laws.

In 2016, Lincoln County commissioners chose to negotiate in the open, and the public employees union took them to court. The courts rightly sided with openness. Voters rewarded transparency by passing a tax increase to pay sheriff’s deputies more.

If elected officials and bureaucrats all had noble intent and the good of the people in mind, I-1608 wouldn’t be necessary. Nothing prevents local government bodies from negotiating in sunlight, but most choose not to. Nothing prevents lawmakers from fixing the law to require all negotiations be public, but they choose not to.

So it falls to voters.

Oregon, Idaho and other some other states have already done this. Washington is behind the curve.

“A lot of the state’s most important business is being conducted with the public and taxpayers excluded,” the initiative’s primary sponsor, Craig Williamson, said. “Despite the toxic tenor of our times, this transcends politics and partisan preference. It’s just a fundamental good-government reform.”

The campaign already has raised more than half of the $1 million Williamson expects to need to pay signature gatherers. Backers must submit 259,622 valid signatures by July 6 to secure a spot on the ballot.

Take a look at the insert in today’s paper; visit; and consider providing one of those signatures. Government is most accountable when it is conducted in sunlight.

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