The public needs to know more about public-employee contract negotiations. The city of Seattle has an opportunity to influence state policy by making its bargaining more transparent.
THE recent leak of Seattle Police contract details prompted a furious response from Mayor Ed Murray, who threatened to call for a federal investigation.
This should motivate the City Council to amend city code and bring more transparency to its contract negotiations. It’s a positive path forward and an opportunity to show leadership for the rest of the state.
Confidential public-employee labor negotiations are a concern at the local and state level.
Secrecy prevents the public from knowing how generous — or how stingy — their representatives are being with the public purse. It also raises questions about whether officials are too cozy with unions supporting their election campaigns.
Remember, on both sides of the negotiating table are employees of the public, being paid by the public to serve the public. The public should know what’s being offered on its behalf.
Surrounding states realize the value of this transparency. Oregon, Idaho and Montana have moved in this direction, providing opportunities for the public to view negotiations and documents, such as offers and counteroffers.
One possible model is the Civic Openness in Negotiations (COIN) system developed by the city of Costa Mesa, Calif. It hires independent negotiators to represent the city and an auditor to analyze fiscal impacts of contract benefits. Councilmembers disclose when contract elements are dropped in closed sessions. Proposals and counteroffers are posted online before contracts are finalized, giving the public at least a week to review and comment.
More transparency is especially needed in Seattle, where police remain under a federal consent decree resulting from the U.S. Department of Justice’s 2011 findings that officers routinely and illegally used excessive force.
This is an opportunity for Seattle to show leadership by making its negotiations more visible to the public.”
Much progress has been made improving the department. The police contract now being negotiated will include terms that further the reforms.
Details of that contract were revealed in contract documents leaked to The Stranger in June. In denouncing the leak, Murray said the city was talking to the FBI about investigating its source. But the city ended up hiring a private investigator to ferret out the leaker.
The Department of Justice and other parties involved in Seattle Police reforms actually favor more disclosure during contract negotiations. During meetings in March and April, there was “near consensus” that accountability would be increased by bringing more transparency to the collective-bargaining process, according to a DOJ report on the meetings.
City Attorney Pete Holmes favors more transparency, though he said any legislative changes wouldn’t apply to the police contract now under negotiation.
“We really should open up the negotiations,” he said, referring to future contracts.
Holmes noted that there’s no requirement in state law that the city’s bargaining process be confidential.
Proposals in the Legislature to bring transparency to state bargaining have stalled in recent years.
This is an opportunity for Seattle to show leadership by making its negotiations more visible to the public.
It’s a way for the city to be progressive, increase civic engagement and set an example for other cities and state government to follow.