Close to 80% of voters in Spokane overwhelmingly approved a law to make the city’s multimillion-dollar contract negotiations with powerful labor unions open to public observation – an attempt to promote trust, honesty and transparency in our government.
In response, labor unions threatened a “barroom brawl in the streets.” Now, a Spokane judge has sided with them.
Last week, Spokane Superior Court Judge Tony Hazel threw out the popular voter-approved law.
Judge Hazel took barely 10 seconds to consider the oral arguments he had just heard before issuing a bizarre, rambling ruling that was more of a political speech than a fair weighing of the facts and the law.
He wrongly claimed state law required collective bargaining to be “exclusive” between the two parties. In fact, the “exclusive” requirement in state law merely refers to unions’ right to be certified as a representative of public employees.
The judge wrongly claimed the openness law did not include a severance clause. It does.
Judge Hazel rightly said “transparency in local government is exceptionally important,” but then reversed himself and claimed “there’s also the reality of human nature.”
The judge also seemed to be ignorant of higher state court rulings on the issue.
After nearby Lincoln County passed its open negotiations resolution, the Public Employment Relations Commission rejected unions’ complaint alleging the resolution was an “unfair labor practice.” Soon after, Lincoln County successfully conducted its first collective bargaining negotiation with doors wide open.
Spokane city voters passed a similar law because they saw that collective bargaining transparency is common and routine. It is the norm in nearly half of the states. There are also several examples of collective bargaining transparency already working in our state. It is routine in Gig Harbor, Lincoln County, Kittitas County, Ferry County, Pullman School District, Kennewick School District; and locally even right here in Spokane County.
Explaining why openness works so well, Pullman School District finance manager Diane Hodge said, “We just think it’s fair for all of the members to know what’s being offered on both sides.”
Spokane County just completed its first successful open negotiation, with the Public Works Guild (union) saying there was “no reason to fear open meetings.”
Other public sector unions, however, have resisted. It is easier to make outrageous and unsustainable demands for salary and benefits when no one is watching.
Unions know the reform is popular with taxpayers. Several city bargaining unions raced to open negotiations for a new contract before the charter change went into effect in 2020. But when that tactic no longer worked, unions sued city taxpayers and threatened elected officials who pledged to uphold the law.
Judge Hazel claimed he had given “a judicious reading, an objective reading” to the Spokane transparency law. Based on his comments, however, it is clear he did not.
Instead of ruling on the facts and the case, Judge Hazel got political and claimed the charter amendment approved by voters was just “an antagonistic tactic … that’s just, honestly.”
It’s interesting that Judge Hazel thinks that – but his political opinion about the merits of collective bargaining transparency as a policy is not relevant. And including his personal bias in his ruling is disturbing.
City of Spokane elected officials must appeal this flawed ruling on behalf of its citizens. Transparency is not a bad thing; in fact, it is a crucial component of honest, well-functioning government. Transparency is not “antagonistic,” it’s about openness and public trust – no matter what one elected judge says.
Chris Cargill is the Eastern Washington director of Washington Policy Center, an independent research organization with offices in Spokane, Seattle, Tri-Cities and Olympia. Online at washingtonpolicy.org.