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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

City, county now require open union negotiations, but they haven’t happened – and may never

Local firefighters, union members and supporters protest the new Spokane Regional Emergency Center prior to an opening ceremony on July 18, 2019. City and county officials are awaiting a court order that will clarify whether negotiations with public unions, like the one representing firefighters, can be open to public view. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
By Rebecca White and Adam Shanks The Spokesman-Review

While Spokane County and the city of Spokane are required to negotiate with public-sector unions in public view, they haven’t yet held a single open bargaining session.

Whether they do likely will depend on a court decision out of Lincoln County – and that ruling could be a few years away.

Collective bargaining has traditionally taken place behind closed doors, but Spokane County commissioners recently voted to require public negotiations. And in November, more than 75% of city voters approved an amendment to the city charter requiring the city to negotiate with unions in public meetings. Now government officials and public-sector unions are trying to figure out whether – and if so, how – to abide by those changes.

In the meantime, thousands of unionized city and county employees are on the brink of beginning bargaining on not only new contracts but rules that govern whether that bargaining is conducted in public or private.

The county

Contracts for more than 1,500 county employees will be open by the end of the year, and county commissioners and the unions that represent those employees have not agreed whether negotiations regarding wages and benefits will be open to the public.

Randy Withrow, the county’s human resources manager negotiating on the commissioners’ behalf, said it’s clear the meetings need to be open. He said the county was meeting with unions, who have been resistant to open meetings, to determine ground rules and had not settled on a solution yet.

Spokane County Commissioner Al French said the county hasn’t used the open meeting requirement because they passed it in a brief window of time in which there was no open negotiation.

“You can’t change the rules in the middle of negotiation,” French said. “That’s why the timing of this was so opportunistic, because we were in between negotiation cycles.”

While Spokane County was the largest employer in the state to enact the reform when two of three commissioners approved it in 2018, it was not the first. Lincoln County voted to open its negotiations to the public in 2016. The issue generated accusations of unfair labor practices on both sides, ending up before a commission that rules on labor disputes, before being appealed to the courts.

Michael Sellars, executive director of the Public Employment Relations Commission, the agency that ruled on Lincoln County’s dispute, said open negotiating isn’t a trend and likely won’t become one until the court case has been resolved. He said some local governments could be waiting for the court’s direction before passing or enforcing such a rule.

For now, the rule is that governments should still bargain over the ground rules of how they will negotiate.

“If you can’t work it out, the commission ruled you default to the way you used to do it, which is private,” he said.

French and Commissioner Josh Kerns said opening negotiations is a win for government transparency and argue that voters overwhelmingly want bargaining to be public, citing the city of Spokane’s November election results.

“I think we need to respect the will of the voters on this,” Kerns said. “This is good policy. I don’t know many people that with a straight face can say transparency (in) government is a bad thing.”

Kerns and French passed the open meeting requirement while Commissioner Mary Kuney was away on county business. Kuney said she supports transparency, but would have preferred to wait until the courts weighed in.

A court decision could be a few years away. Scott Hutsell, one of Lincoln County’s commissioners, said the county and Teamsters Local 690 have both “dug their heels in” and likely will appeal their case to the Washington Supreme Court.

“In any governmental entity of any kind … the big expenses are wages and benefits,” he said. “So if the citizens want to see how those are being spent, and how those contracts work, that’s what transparency and open negotiations are about.”

A representative for Teamsters Local 690 did not immediately return a request for comment.

Gordon Smith, representative for the majority of Council 2 Union employees at Spokane County, said the union would prefer to avoid stalemate and is still meeting with commissioners’ representatives to negotiate the ground rules for bargaining. He is negotiating with the county on behalf of corrections employees.

“At the end of the day, what everybody wants is to get a new contract done, so we’re going to do everything we can to avoid a protracted dispute,” he said.

Kevin Richey, representative for the sheriff’s deputies union, argued that the process is already transparent. He said the agreement the union negotiates with the county has to be approved by county commissioners in a public meeting and once it is approved, it is available to the public.

“The way we’ve been doing things isn’t broken,” he said.

The city

For now, the city of Spokane will wait for the result of Lincoln County’s legal battle.

But City Councilman Michael Cathcart, who sponsored Proposition 1 last November as he simultaneously ran for (and ultimately) won a seat on the council, has no such patience.

“I do want to absolutely be sure that we are going to follow the charter – it is now the law of the land,” Cathcart said.

But Cathcart and Proposition 1’s supporters shouldn’t expect to saunter into a negotiation session anytime in the near future.

The city is in negotiations with three unions, including the Spokane Police Guild. But because those talks began prior to the passage of Proposition 1, the ground rules for the negotiations have already been set, according to the city’s legal department.

“Those ground rules are in place, and they’re not going to change,” said Marlene Feist, a city spokeswoman.

That means details of the city’s ongoing talks with the Police Guild – which has gone without a new contract since 2016 – won’t see the light of day.

The city’s next set of negotiations isn’t set to begin until late this year, when it embarks on forging a new contract with its largest union, Local 270, which includes the city’s clerical and maintenance workers.

In the meantime, the city is waiting for guidance as the appeal of Lincoln County’s rules makes its way through the courts. There is no guarantee, however, that legal precedent will be set before negotiations begin.

As amended by Proposition 1, the city’s own charter appears to be in conflict with the decision by the Public Employment Relations Commission in Lincoln County. If it doesn’t negotiate in public, the city will be in violation of its own charter. If it tries to unilaterally impose open negotiations on city unions, their leadership could cry foul.

Under the template laid out by the commission’s decision, the city can ask that negotiations be public as the two parties establish ground rules.

Cathcart doesn’t believe the city should ask – it should just follow its own charter.

“I think it shouldn’t be a request. I think it should be the position of the city that it is in the charter, and this is the way it’s going to be,” Cathcart said.

Cathcart believes that by enshrining the rule in the city charter, with voter support, Spokane has separated itself from other communities that have attempted to mandate open collective bargaining.

“I think that there is a much different weight that it brings to the table when it comes to maybe a judicial opinion on how this is enforced,” Cathcart said. “And so I think the position of the city should be we enforce the charter until a judge tells us otherwise.”

Currently, the city administration spearheads negotiations with public unions. The City Council has to sign off on the finalized agreement and may receive updates throughout the process in executive session, but the negotiations are not open to public view.

Opening union negotiations to public view is supported by right-leaning organizations such as the Freedom Foundation and Washington Policy Center, but implementing such policies is a work in progress.

Without guidance from a court, “we’re going to end up with legal questions,” Feist said.

Councilwoman Lori Kinnear opposed Proposition 1, voicing concern that it “compromises negotiations.”

“You have that third party that is interpreting what both sides are doing or saying. It’s not a pure process at that point,” Kinnear said.

Kinnear also said that maintaining such a “pure process” is a priority.

Spokane Firefighters Local 29 is already in open negotiations with the city, so Proposition 1 isn’t an immediate concern. But in the future, union president Tim Archer said he has reservations. He would be hesitant to voluntarily agree to open negotiations.

“My biggest concern would be political posturing,” Archer said.

But if the courts make it clear that unions must comply with the city charter, “by all means we’ll embrace it,” Archer said.