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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Shawn Vestal: Union reps’ push for private negotiations reason enough to raise questions against such secrecy

Spokane firefighters leave the scene of a fire at Lilac Plaza, April 9, 2018, in Spokane, Wash. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

An officer of the Spokane firefighters union – representing the men and women whose paychecks constitute a large portion of the city’s budget – says, unsurprisingly, that transparency in labor negotiations would be a bad idea.

People wouldn’t be able to speak frankly, is the idea. The negotiations would become a sham, with people having their truthful conversations outside the open meetings.

Plus, “Nobody wants to see what a hot dog is made of,” he said in a recent interview with The Spokesman-Review.

Nobody, I guess, except the people who have to pay for and eat the thing.

A new ballot initiative put forth by Better Spokane, a pro-business political committee that has emerged as a kind of counterweight to the liberal City Council, would ask Spokane voters whether they want to require contract negotiations with the city’s labor unions to be carried out publicly. Initiative backers will be gathering signatures to put the issue on the ballot – coupled with one that would prohibit a local income tax.

It’s part of a larger push in conservative circles to open up labor negotiations. Like “right to work” laws, that push seems as much an effort to poke a hole in the hull of the union ship than to serve the noble principles of transparency.

And yet, if opponents want to make a case that such negotiations should remain closed, they’ve got to make stronger arguments than our lawmakers do. Argue that negotiations should be kept closed because the participants are saying such sensitive things that they could never broach them honestly in public sounds like an excellent argument for rolling the TV cameras in there right away.

The supposed requirement for secrecy in negotiations is also the linchpin of our lawmakers’ continual foot-dragging and insistence that they deserve special exemptions from the Public Records Act. For a couple of years now, the bad faith and bad arguments that have flowed from lawmakers – who have been ordered by a judge to follow the law, while attempting to write themselves special provisions – have been discouraging, to say the least.

Among the chief concerns legislators have expressed is that they need to be able to horse-trade in private before the public sees final legislation or other work.

The making of the hot dog, in other words, must be encased in secrecy.

That’s precisely the opposite of the way it should work, at least in a system that prizes public participation and access.

The sausage metaphor was raised recently by Dave Kovac, secretary of Local 29, in response to a citywide initiative to open the union negotiations to the public. Neither Kovac nor any legislator is alone in the attitude that openness is somehow an obstacle to openness; it’s the rallying cry of almost everyone who has ever had to deal with actual transparency in government.

Public officials all pay it lip service, but no one likes the public or the news media prying into their business when the question becomes concrete. Mayors, sheriffs, police chiefs, city council members, county commissioners – no one enjoys the idea that their work in progress, their unfinished thoughts, negotiating positions, amendments and discards, their emails and text messages might be available for public inspection.

No one thinks that the time and effort spent on answering requests for public requests for records is worthwhile.

No one who has the light trained on them likes the light.

It’s understandable. Such openness is not normal. It’s not the way any of us operate in any other arena. We live in a world where organizations prepare, manage, massage, tweak, finalize, edit, redraft, retweak public communications before they ever see the light of day. In that context, it feels profoundly uncomfortable and even unnatural to be asked to adhere to laws that fly directly in the face of that practice.

And yet that is what Washington law calls for. That is what it means for the people to own the government. That is what true accountability requires: the uncomfortable, inconvenient, time-consuming, perhaps even embarrassing participation in a process that is overseen by the people.

Fully transparent contract negotiations between the administration and the unions may not be practical or worthwhile – I’m agnostic on the point thus far because I support openness in government and am resistant to the arguments that such openness, in and of itself, will hurt the process. And yet, I’m wary of union-busting Trojan horses bearing noble titles.

Ultimately, though, local union reps and labor backers have to do better than our lawmakers have done if they want to make a persuasive case to the public.

They have to do more than sell us a hot dog made of mystery meat.