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Judge overturns Spokane voter-approved law mandating open public bargaining session with city union

Spokane City Hall.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Spokane City Hall. (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Garrett Cabeza The Spokesman-Review

A new law that requires collective bargaining be conducted in open view is unconstitutional, a Spokane County Superior Court judge ruled.

The largest public employees union in Spokane – Local 270, which represents about 1,000 city employees – sued the city, claiming the Spokane Charter amendment approved by city voters in 2019 violates state law.

Judge Tony Hazel ruled Aug. 13 that Section 40 of the Spokane Charter is unconstitutional and the city is prohibited from enforcing that section of its city charter. The Aug. 13 court documents were filed Thursday.

“I’m somewhat vindicated to be honest with you,” said Joe Cavanaugh, Local 270 president. “Not to be happy dancing or anything like that, it’s just a matter of the judicial review showed to us what we thought it would.”

Hazel’s ruling states the charter section is in conflict with general state laws “clearly on its face and by application under the facts before the Court.”

The charter amendment was approved by 77% of voters.

Section 40, “Opening Collective Bargaining Negotiations,” states that, starting Dec. 1, 2019, the city “will conduct all collective bargaining contract negotiations in a manner that is transparent and open to public observation, both in person and through video streaming or playback.”

It also states the city must provide public notice of all collective bargaining negotiations in accordance with the Open Public Meetings Act and must publish and maintain all notes, documentations and collective bargaining proposals.

Cavanaugh said he believed the charter amendment was “inappropriate and intruding” on the negotiation process.

“We’re basically trying to get back to using standard of conducts in negotiations that we’ve utilized for at least the past 25 years,” Cavanaugh said.

Spokane City Councilman Michael Cathcart said the judge’s ruling was a “farce,” “rambling” and “illogical” and was “quite a stretch of interpretation of state law.”

“I was frankly flabbergasted at how the ruling was made,” he said. “For the judge to have to concoct the bizarre ruling he did to throw this out just made no sense.”

Cathcart said the initiative, which he spearheaded in 2019, is a win-win.

“I mean the public has the opportunity to see how the sausage is made, to understand and hold their elected officials accountable for good or bad contracts that may be made,” he said. “The union members have an opportunity to hold their negotiators accountable if their jobs are being negotiated away or negative impacts to their salaries or their positions are being bargained away. And this just gives everybody an opportunity to have full view, full transparent view of what’s happening in city government.”

The city can choose to appeal the judge’s decision.

Brian Coddington, city of Spokane spokesman, said the city attorney’s office will review the judge’s ruling and make recommendations to Mayor Nadine Woodward. He said he is unsure exactly when a decision to appeal or not to appeal will be made.

Cathcart said he strongly urges the city to appeal.

“When 77% of the city and 84% of the people in northeast Spokane (Cathcart’s district) say they want transparency, I think government is obligated to fight to make sure that that happens,” Cathcart said.

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