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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Contract negotiated in private between Spokane and prosecutors approved; Cathcart cries foul

Spokane City Councilman Michael Cathcart speaks during a Spokane City Council meeting, Mon. Jan. 13, 2020. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane city officials have signed the first new contract with a union since voters approved a charter amendment requiring that collective bargaining negotiations be held in public view.

But the agreement still was negotiated behind closed doors, and the amendment’s sponsor, Councilman Michael Cathcart, is none too pleased.

“It entirely violates the spirit of the law,” Cathcart said Monday.

Cathcart does not find the contract’s contents particularly objectionable – the four-year deal with Local 270 prosecuting attorneys calls for 2.85% raises annually. But Cathcart questions the conditions under which it was negotiated.

In addition to winning a first term as a council member in November, Cathcart was the primary sponsor of Proposition 1, a ballot measure that required the city to conduct collective bargaining in open meetings.

The measure received the support of more than 75% of voters, but the city has not implemented its requirements.

Under existing state law, the city’s legal department has said the city cannot unilaterally impose Proposition 1’s requirement on existing negotiations. But Cathcart noted Monday that the first meetings between the city and the prosecutors, which is part of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, began on Nov. 6 – the day after the election.

Cathcart’s office reached out to the city’s human resources department and learned the attorneys’ contract was negotiated over the course of five meetings, starting on Nov. 6, 2019, and ending on Jan. 15.

“The timing is just off. I think they knew that this had passed,” Cathcart said, adding negotiations should have been delayed until Proposition 1’s standards were implemented.

Councilwoman Candace Mumm noted Monday that while the election took place on Nov. 5, its results are not certified until several weeks later.

Either way, the negotiating sessions held after the election’s certification should have been public, Cathcart argued.

“There is no exemption in the charter that says ‘except for negotiations that began before.’ The charter’s pretty clear. It says ‘all,’ ” Cathcart said.

On Tuesday, city spokeswoman Marlene Feist said the first negotiating session with the attorneys was scheduled prior to the election.

After Proposition 1 was approved, the city asked for negotiations to be public, but the union declined.

In a statement, Mayor Nadine Woodward said she supported Proposition 1.

“The administration is actively developing a road map that fairly and legally implements it for negotiations set to begin after the law’s effective date, while navigating the legal and contractual commitments made before the law’s passage,” Woodward said.

Spokane is one of several communities across Washington to attempt to implement open collective bargaining policies, including Spokane County, but unions have battled back.

The city is waiting to see the results of a legal battle over a similar rule in Lincoln County for further guidance before demanding negotiations be made public.

Moving forward, the city has said it will ask unions to agree to open collective bargaining sessions as a ground rule for negotiations. But, if the unions don’t agree to the condition, the city could be left in a bind and forced to choose whether to violate its own charter or state law.

In 2018, the Public Employment Relations Commission ruled that state law does not allow a government to impose such requirements on unions without their consent, a precedent leaders in Lincoln County hope to overturn.

Cathcart cast the lone vote against the contract at Monday’s City Council meeting.

He has advocated the city require unions to negotiate in public until a judge says otherwise, arguing that having its rule enshrined in the city charter makes Spokane unique from other communities that have struggled to implement open bargaining requirements.