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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Chris Cargill: Who will defend the taxpayers? Not the city of Spokane or its unions

By Chris Cargill

By Chris Cargill

The message from voters was crystal clear, but elected officials apparently don’t want to hear it.

In 2019, nearly 80% of voters in the city of Spokane approved an amendment to the city charter – in essence, a local constitutional amendment – requiring collective bargaining talks between the city government and city unions be open and transparent. It’s a simple concept – since the salaries of government workers make up such a large portion of the city’s budget, taxpayers have a right to know how the single-largest spending item is being negotiated.

The openness rule doesn’t give an advantage to either side. It does provide transparency for those of us who pay the bill.

Union bosses immediately balked at the measure and took taxpayers to court. Union employees would have been able to see exactly what demands were being made on their behalf. But the bosses didn’t want their backroom dealing to be exposed.

In fact, one union leader threatened to start a “bar room brawl” in the streets if the measure stood.

The violent rhetoric seemed to have influenced city officials. Their response to defending the measure and the taxpayers right to know was tepid, at best.

When the city told me that it was unsure whether it would defend the measure, I asked if there was any other part of the city charter it did not defend or endorse. The response was silence.

When the measure came before Spokane County District Court Judge Tony Hazel, the city gave a weak defense. Predictably, the judge ruled against taxpayers, with language that indicated he didn’t really understand the issue.

Now that his ruling has been appealed to the state Supreme Court, the city defense is just as bad. In court briefs, the city claims it’s not even following the law and “the City and the Union have been bargaining in private, just as the Union demanded.”

Essentially, city leaders say they are doing what the union wants, so what’s the big deal? So much for the citizens being in charge of their own government.

Lincoln County and Spokane County have passed similar laws, and both have had success in the transparent process. In fact, a union official working with Spokane County said “there was no reason to fear open meetings.”

For many years, these negotiations with unions who represent local government workers have been conducted 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 members didn’t know what was being negotiated on their behalf until the negotiations were done.

Union contracts for salary and benefits account for a huge portion of public spending. It makes sense that they should not be negotiated in secret.

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 in public spending is never a bad thing. In fact, it makes our democracy stronger.

Open collective bargaining talks are not controversial and there is no reason to keep them secret.

Good government is transparent government. Who will protect the taxpayers and look out for their best interests? Clearly not the city or its union leadership.

Chris Cargill is the Eastern Washington director of Washington Policy Center, an independent research organization based in Seattle. Online at Members of the Cowles family, owners of The Spokesman-Review, have previously hosted fundraisers for the Washington Policy Center and sit on the organization’s board.