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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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City of Spokane public bargaining mandate unconstitutional, state Supreme Court says

Dec. 8, 2022 Updated Thu., Dec. 8, 2022 at 9:30 p.m.

As the sun sets in downtown Spokane, a pedestrian walks by the entrance of the City Hall building on Oct. 11, 2021.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
As the sun sets in downtown Spokane, a pedestrian walks by the entrance of the City Hall building on Oct. 11, 2021. (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

OLYMPIA – A voter-approved law that would have required collective bargaining between the city of Spokane and its unionized employees be done in public is unconstitutional, the state Supreme Court ruled.

The court on Thursday upheld a Spokane County Superior Court judge’s ruling from last August that said the new charter section was in conflict with state laws. The court unanimously ruled in favor of Spokane public employees labor union Local 270, which sued the city claiming a new Spokane Charter amendment violated state law.

It also found that most recent negotiations between the city and Local 270 were hindered by the city’s insistence on bargaining in public, causing a “significant slowdown,” according to the opinion written by Justice Charles Johnson.

“We feel vindicated,” Local 270 President Joe Cavanaugh said. “The Supreme Court ruled 9-0 in our favor. That says something.”

State law requires negotiations for public employees to be uniform statewide, according to the opinion. Interpreting the public employees collective bargaining laws as the city of Spokane did in creating the charter amendment “could lead to a patchwork of rules relating to bargaining negotiation.”

“We conclude that the Legislature intended collective bargaining to operate in a uniform manner statewide, without variation from local laws, based on the intent to create a uniform process of bargaining,” Johnson wrote. “Uniformity cannot exist where some cities or counties are allowed to operate under different bargaining rules than others.”

Allowing a local government to require negotiations occur in public would undermine the intent for statewide uniformity, he continued.

The charter amendment stated that the city would 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 required the city to provide public notice of all collective bargaining negotiations in accordance with the Open Public Meetings Act and publish all materials and documentation to the city’s official website.

“It’s extremely disappointing that the Supreme Court didn’t take the side of transparency,” Council member Michael Cathcart said. “Instead, it took the side of secrecy.”

About 77% of voters in Spokane approved the amendment in 2019, and Cathcart said this is an example of “government elitism,” where the government feels it knows better than the people.

The decision to keep the negotiations private hurts not only the public, but public employees who work for the government, as they often don’t have access to the bargaining meetings, he said.

“We are a government of, by and for the people, and the people should absolutely know what is being discussed in these meetings,” Cathcart said.

Although the amendment was voted on by Spokane residents, Cavanaugh said “it wasn’t theirs to approve.”

“The reality is … the state has said the negotiations will be monitored by the state, not by the counties, not by the cities,” Cavanaugh said. “There’s one specific set of rules that everyone has to play by.”

Public bargaining can take place if both parties agree to it, but the opinion states negotiation rules cannot be decided by one party without discussion and agreement from both.

The last collective bargaining contract between the city and Local 270 expired at the end of 2020, and in initial negotiations for the newest one, the two parties disagreed on whether to conduct them in public.

By March 2021, the two parties could not agree to ground rules as the city continued to push to have public negotiations, according to court documents.

Though the city eventually agreed to negotiate in private and an agreement was met, the Court found the charter amendment hurt preliminary negotiations between the city and the labor union.

Eric Stahlfeld, Chief Litigation Counsel for the conservative Freedom Foundation, expressed disappointment in the decision.

“It is unsurprising that unions insist negotiations be conducted behind closed doors, with no public observation how their elected representatives spend taxpayer money,” Stahlfeld said. “However, this opinion does permit open negotiations, if the parties both agree, so it is important the public holds its elected officials’ feet to the fire to bargain for open negotiations.”

Cathcart said the council is still getting feedback from its legal team as to possible next steps based on the ruling, but he said it is his desire to see the charter amendment remain in effect, with the hope that the state law will eventually change to allow for more transparency.

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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