Spokane voters will be asked in November whether to make public the negotiations between public bargaining groups and city hall.
The nonprofit Better Spokane sponsored the initiative. Michael Cathcart, who is running for a seat on Spokane’s City Council, heads the pro-business group.
The proposal would make bargaining with unions representing police, firefighters, clerical and other city workers open to public scrutiny as part of a revision of the city charter. It would bring the city of Spokane in line with other governments and taxing districts in the state, including Spokane County, Lincoln and Ferry counties, that have already approved laws requiring contract talks to be public.
“The main thing is access and the ability to observe for the public, for the members of the collective bargaining units, for the media,” Cathcart said. “For anyone who has an interest.”
Cathcart said he began work to collect signatures and place the initiative on the ballot at the direction of the Better Spokane board before he decided to run for political office this summer.
Supporters of the public bargaining process, among them free-market groups like the Freedom Foundation and Washington Policy Center, argue it’s a check on government spending that has been approved by the courts.
But Joe Cavanaugh, president of Spokane Local 270, which represents many of the city’s clerical and maintenance workers, said he’s not so sure the courts have permitted such measures. Local 270 is the largest union at Spokane City Hall and is part of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Cavanaugh pointed to a 2016 Washington State Public Employee Relations Commission ruling in Lincoln County that he said isn’t definitive on the subject and suggests that both sides would need to agree before talks could be conducted publicly.
“PERC has ruled the determination whether it can be open or not is negotiable,” said Cavanaugh.
The commission’s decision did reject claims of unfair labor practices by Teamsters Local 690 after Lincoln County commissioners passed a resolution opening bargaining to the public.
The proposal would open to the public negotiations between the city and Spokane Police Guild, which have been ongoing since the current contract expired at the end of 2016. The Spokane Police Guild is currently in arbitration with the city on a new contract.
Kris Honaker, president of the Spokane Police Guild, said this week the union representing uniformed officers had not taken a position on the vote.
Cathcart said the initiative would allow public officials to observe and discuss negotiations on potentially thorny issues in the ongoing talks, including the independence of the police department’s ombudsman. That issue was also part of a ballot initiative in 2013.
“It’s important that we know, with those discussions, what’s happening with them. Are we getting to that point where the public’s going to be satisfied with the outcome?” Cathcart said.
The late Alfredo LLamedo, an activist and social worker who was critical of the city’s approaches to homelessness and the culture of the police department, testified in June in favor of the open bargaining law because of its potential effect on police bargaining.
“I support it, because I don’t think there’s enough transparency in the process, especially with the Police Guild,” LLamedo said.
Cathcart’s opponent in the November election, Tim Benn, said he was also concerned about the lack of a contract for police officers. But he noted that the proposition dealt with talks governed by labor laws that could ensnare the city in litigation if passed.
“I think, when you’re talking about legal contracts, there are attorney-client issues,” he said. “If it passes, if there are issues inside of the initiative that cause legal trouble, due to the people that hold those contracts, there could be legal action taken.”
Tim Archer, president of Local 29, the Spokane Firefighters Union, said he hadn’t reviewed the proposition closely, but he worried that public negotiations could muddy the process.
“My only concern, really, is that we could end up with political posturing, instead of really working toward what’s optimal for both the city and the employees,” Archer said.
Catchart said the proposition doesn’t dictate the outcomes of the negotiating process and is intended only so that voters can hold their elected officials more accountable for financial decisions involving contracts. He also said he didn’t believe holding talks about the police contract in private would hold up a process that he said is already behind schedule.
“I think nothing is worse when you shine sunshine on it,” Cathcart said.
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