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Spokane County Commission backs legal effort forcing public employee unions to negotiate publicly

Spokane County Commissioners Josh Kerns and Al French, pictured September 12, 2017, say they don’t have the power to loosen statewide measures designed to slow the spread of coronavirus. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane County Commissioners Josh Kerns and Al French, pictured September 12, 2017, say they don’t have the power to loosen statewide measures designed to slow the spread of coronavirus. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane County has filed a brief in support of Lincoln County’s case that will determine whether counties can force unions that represent their employees to negotiate wages and benefits in public.

Lincoln County’s case started after it passed a rule in 2016 requiring its unions unions to negotiate in public. One union agreed to the requirement after its members said they would prefer a contract to a drawn-out dispute. The other union refused to meet with the county in public, and the county refused to meet with the union in private, leading both parties to file unfair labor practice complaints.

A Washington state commission that weighs in on public labor disputes ruled that both parties must agree to ground rules and negotiate in private if they can’t agree; that case is currently being appealed.

Spokane County passed a resolution similar to Lincoln County’s in 2018, but did not attempt to enforce it until 2020 because no contracts were open. Al French, chairman of the Spokane County Commission, did not respond to a request for comment Friday but has argued that most of the Spokane area wants such a reform because the city of Spokane’s voters overwhelmingly approved an open meeting requirement in November.

Spokane County was the largest employer in the state to approve such a requirement when commissioners French and Josh Kerns, who have argued that the practice improves transparency, passed a resolution requiring unions to negotiate in public in 2018. Commissioner Mary Kuney was traveling when Kerns and French approved the requirement, but said in an interview last month that she would have preferred if they had waited until Lincoln County’s case over the same issue had been resolved.

Spokane County is negotiating ground rules for bargaining with the union that represents jail employees, part of the Washington State Council of County and City Employees. By 2021, about 1,500 county employees’ contracts will expire.

Chief Civil Deputy Prosecuting Attorney for Spokane County, John Driscoll, argued in the brief the county filed that Spokane County does have the authority, because it manages the public’s funds, to require labor negotiations be in public. The county argued that their requirement is a nationwide trend and “sound public policy,” because paying for personnel is often one of the most expensive parts of local government.

The state law requiring certain government meetings to be open to the public has an exception for collective bargaining, but Spokane County argues the law allows governments to require unions to negotiate with them in public, according to the brief.

Gordon Smith, staff representative for the majority of the county’s unionized workers who are members of the Washington State Council Of County And City Employees, said he was concerned that the brief, and the county’s decision to require negotiators to meet in public, was political. He argued that there are other ways to make negotiations more transparent, such as releasing minutes of the meetings or having them mostly public and some parts in executive session, but the county has not accepted those compromises.

“If they’re sincere (about transparency), that’s one thing,” he said. “But if this is about throwing sand in the gears of the process, that’s another.”

Smith also argued the Freedom Foundation, an organization that advocates for policies that weaken public employee unions, has put pressure on local governments to open up meetings, or pushed other polices to encourage members to opt out of being in the union or defund them in other ways.

“Private negotiations are working fine, and they have been for decades,” he said.

Jared Webley, a spokesman for the county, said Friday that the county was still in talks with the union to negotiate ground rules.

Smith said he is willing to continue negotiating with the county to try to get to a contract.

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