WASHINGTON state’s Open Public Meetings Act begins with the bold declaration that the people do not give public servants the right to decide what is good for them to know or not know.
Unfortunately, the letter of the act fails to live up to its spirit in one important area: Contract negotiations between government agencies and public-employees’ unions.
The 1971 law encourages government transparency and accountability by requiring meetings of public agencies and governing bodies to be open to the public, from the state level down to local school boards.
Overall, the Open Public Meetings Act is an important contribution to responsive government, promoting citizen involvement in and monitoring of the institutions which govern them.
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When it comes to government collective-bargaining sessions, however, meetings take place behind closed doors.
Conducting contract negotiations in secret deprives the public of the ability to monitor important discussions which are fundamentally about determining tax expenditures, service levels, government-accountability measures, future liabilities and citizens’ rights.
At the state level alone, more than $7 billion a year is spent on payroll costs, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and collective bargaining covers three-quarters of state employees, according to state’s Human Resources division. Local governments have payroll costs of almost $14 billion a year.
Despite the vast sums of taxpayer dollars being divvied up in hundreds of collective-bargaining sessions across the state, the public is prohibited from witnessing the proceedings.
Not surprisingly, keeping collective-bargaining sessions out of the public eye can lead to egregious abuses.
In May, it was leaked that private negotiations between the city of Seattle and the police officer’s union were stalled because the city wanted to stop paying the union president’s six-figure salary. The news produced a public backlash against the union, as it has in previous years.
Nevertheless, each cycle Seattleites must wait for negotiations to conclude and the finalized contract to be publicly released before finding out that they will still foot the bill for the union president’s salary and benefits.
Washington’s illegal, though semi-frequent, teacher strikes provide another timely example of why contract negotiations need greater transparency.
Teacher strikes disrupt important public services to families without explanation. Journalists have the unenviable task of sorting out the self-promoting claims of either side without access to the facts.
Public claims about negotiations may or may not accurately reflect the real issues at hand in closed-door bargaining sessions.
A secondhand report of a disagreement about class size might actually refer to a conflict over giving pay bonuses to teachers with large classes. In public, union officials may voice pragmatic concerns about a teacher-evaluation system while opposing any form of learning-based accountability for employees in negotiations.
Still, public unions want bargaining sessions to remain off-limits to the public. When pressed, union leaders typically argue that open meetings would discourage frank discussions between union reps and government negotiators. Translation: Union officials might have to watch what they say in public.
The very fact that union officials or government negotiators may oppose opening bargaining negotiations indicates that they have something to hide and only strengthens the case for greater transparency.
At least six states already require contract negotiations with public employees to be open to the public, and a number of other states provide for at least limited public insight into the process. In neighboring Oregon, for instance, school districts can choose to conduct bargaining publicly.
Washington state legislators should change the law to eliminate the exemption for collective bargaining under the Open Public Meetings Act, or at least to open the last weeks of dispute to public evaluation.
Grievance meetings and other genuinely private proceedings could still remain exempt, but there is no excuse for excluding citizens from contract negotiations that determine critical questions about public finances and government functions.
Jami Lund, left, is the senior education-policy analyst and Maxford Nelsen is the labor-policy analyst at the Freedom Foundation in Olympia.