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Wednesday, February 26, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: City and county should press for transparent union negotiations

The city of Spokane and Spokane County now require transparency in public-sector union negotiations. They should push hard to enforce those laws, even as lawyers fight over them. If unions push back and insist on keeping the people in the dark, they don’t have the people’s best interest at heart. That’s something to remember at the negotiating table.

Open contract negotiation between government and public-sector unions is in everyone’s best interest. Taxpayers who fund union workers’ salaries and benefits deserve a chance to see that their elected officials are negotiating well on their behalf. Union members deserve a chance to see that their leaders are representing their interests.

The historic approach has been one of secrecy. Government and union officials would hash out a deal behind closed doors. Then they would head back to their respective constituencies, throw their hands up in the air, and say, “This was the best we could get.” At least the union typically gets to vote on whether to agree to the new contract. Voters aren’t so lucky.

It was little wonder, then, that city residents overwhelmingly supported amending the charter to require that union negotiations be open to public observation. More than three-quarters of voters supported the amendment, and Michael Cathcart, who sponsored the measure, won a seat on the council.

County commissioners had previously passed a law requiring transparency without putting it to voters in 2018. It’s not in the county charter, but it is a county law.

Yet as Spokesman-Review reporters Rebecca White and Adam Shanks reported last week, neither the city nor county have held an open negotiation yet.

In fairness, no new negotiations have started recently, but that will soon change. Contracts with 1,500 county employees will open by the end of the year, but the union and county haven’t agreed on whether to abide by the transparency law during negotiations. The city will have to work out a contract with its largest union – Local 270, which includes clerical and maintenance workers – later this year, and the same discussion over ground rules will occur.

Both city and county are hedging against taking too hard a stance in favor of enforcing the law because litigation over a similar law in Lincoln County is meandering through legal review. It’s possible that ultimately the courts will say the laws are unenforceable.

Even so, that doesn’t mean that local government should just give up on what the public clearly wants. They should press hard to encourage unions to negotiate publicly. If unions refuse, they would do themselves a disservice by entering what should be a positive, collaborative discussion with hostility toward the very public they serve.

Alas, not all government officials support keeping the public informed about union negotiations. Councilwoman Lori Kinnear says that if the public can watch, it won’t be a “pure process.” We would remind her that impurity is much more likely to fester in the shadows than under the sunlight of public transparency.

If negotiations are open to the public, few people would likely attend. Probably a reporter or two and maybe a handful of residents passionately interested in government fiscal accountability. Accounts of the proceedings would spread, though, and that is what unions fear.

Like with most open government issues, there is a choice to be made. Nothing in the law ever compelled secret negotiations. Government and public-sector unions chose secrecy in the past. It’s time for them to choose sunshine and accountability instead.

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