Spokane union leaders are making it clear they don’t like public transparency. In late December, one union leader sent a letter to the city saying they “won’t allow it” and threatened a “bar room brawl just may break out in the streets.”
This is unacceptable and dangerous language. When it comes to openness and transparency, what are union leaders so afraid of?
Spokane voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 1 in 2019. This ballot measure simply requires collective bargaining talks with city unions over taxpayer money be open and transparent. Nearly 80% of Spokane voters approved the measure. It passed in every single city precinct.
For many years, these negotiations with city unions were conducted in secret, behind closed doors. Citizens were not informed about the public spending agreement until the deal was done – even though they are the ones paying the bill.
Union contracts account for such a huge portion of public spending, so it makes sense that they should not be negotiated in secret. The city charter change approved by voters allows employees to see firsthand what offers and counteroffers are being made by union executives in their name. A policy of open public meetings identifies, for both taxpayers and union members, whether one side or the other is being deceptive or unreasonable. Openness would quickly reveal who, if anyone, is acting in bad faith.
Taxpayers should be able to follow the process and hold government officials accountable for the decisions they make on our behalf. Local media should be allowed to cover the process and inform the public so that citizens can be aware how public money is being spent. Transparency is never a bad thing. Voters knew this when they passed this law and charter change in 2019.
It is predictable that union leadership would resist such a change. If they continue to resist, the city of Spokane should simply proceed as required by law – publish a public offer to the union(s) and await a response.
The people of Spokane expect city council members and the mayor to follow the law that the citizens have established. They expect them to uphold their oath, which pledges commitment to and enforcement of the city charter. Nothing in state law prevents it.
Washington actually has one of the strongest open government laws in the country. The state’s Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) says: “The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”
Explaining why the Pullman School District embraces collective bargaining transparency, the district’s 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.”
Transparency is popular and it increases public confidence in our government institutions and elected officials. Opening union contract negotiations to the public as other states and cities have done is a practical and ethical way to achieve that standard. The citizens demand it. City officials must show they are listening and respect what the voters want from their city government.
Chris Cargill is the Eastern Washington director and Jason Mercier is the government reform director for the Washington Policy Center, an independent research organization with offices in Spokane, Tri-Cities, Seattle and Olympia.
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