Benton County has joined the Kennewick in considering if contract negotiations with employee union should be open to the public.
County commissioners made no decision but all three commissioners indicated they’re interested in studying the idea.
Kennewick City Councilman John Trumbo presented a case for public contract negotiations to his council last week. The idea received a lukewarm response.
“This is far from over,” said Trumbo, a retired Tri-City Herald reporter. He said he plans to reintroduce the proposal in June.
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Open negotiating is an idea that is gaining traction in Washington. In September, commissioners in rural Lincoln County opened negotiations. The Pullman School District followed suit. And Pierce County’s newly elected executive, Bruce Dammeier pledged to open negotiations with employee unions.
Open negotiations are widely supported by advocates of transparency in government, including the Washington Policy Center and the Washington Coalition for Open Government.
But detractors say public negotiations are a thinly veiled ploy by the Freedom Foundation, a conservative Olympia-based policy organization, to weaken unions.
The 2017 Legislature considered but did not approve several bills that would have made public negotiations between public agencies and their employee unions.
We’re still studying it.
Commissioner Jerome Delvin, Benton County
Benton County’s commission did not indicate if they’re interested in allowing the public to attend negotiating sessions with unions, but pledged to study the pros and cons of handling contract negotiations in public rather than private.
“We’re still studying it,” said Commissioner Jerome Delvin.
However, Delvin indicated he was skeptical at inviting union officials to speak against the process and saying there are times in negotiations where he wouldn’t want the public to see what’s going on.
He also worried about the cost to comply with a new meeting notification requirement.
Benton County has separate collective bargaining agreements with employees in the appraiser’s office, court bailiffs, courthouse employees, juvenile court employees, juvenile detention workers, road employees, clerical workers in the sheriff’s department, corrections and deputies in the sheriff’s department.
The contracts are posted on the county’s website, bit.ly/BentonContracts.
Taxpayers have the right to know how they’re being represented. I hope you will decide that there is no drawback to opening these meetings.
Matthew Hayward, Washington outreach coordinator for the Freedom Foundation
Matthew Hayward, Washington outreach coordinator for the Freedom Foundation, said opening negotiations is already legal in the state and local governments have the right to open their sessions.
“Taxpayers have the right to know how they’re being represented,” he said. “I hope you will decide that there is no drawback to opening these meetings,” he said.
But union leaders see plenty of drawbacks.
Austin DePaolo, business representative for Teamsters Local 839, which represents corrections employees in Benton County, urged commissioners to see through the rhetoric.
Open negotiations have little to do with transparency or good governance, he said.
Kevin Dougherty, who represents courthouse workers in Benton and Franklin counties, said open sessions will have a chilling affect on sensitive conversations.
Jim Gow, regional representative for the Washington Education Association, said if advocates for transparency in government were sincere, they would work to open up other negotiations, including real estate discussions and executive salaries.
He predicted rowdy sessions if pro- and anti-union forces clash during public sessions.
“We are very concerned about this,” he told the Benton County Commission.
But advocates say the tax-paying public should be able to scrutinize the negotiations, and the negotiators.
Having it be required in state law would be simpler.
Toby Nixon, president of Washington Coalition for Open Government
Jason Mercier, director of the Washington Policy Center’s center for government reform in Pasco, said the 2015 teachers strike against the Pasco School District highlights the need for open negotiations.
During the strike, contradictory information emerged from both sides. Since negotiations were in private, there was no way to independently verify claims from both sides, he said.
Mercier said the nonprofit wants to see negotiations opened up, but failing that, it wants Washington to consider the approach pioneered by Costa Mesa, Calif., where offers, counteroffers and financial spreadsheets are publicized before negotiations to give the public insight into what’s being offered.
Open negotiations also are a top priority for the Washington Coalition for Open Government, which supported unsuccessful legislation during the 2017 Legislature.
Toby Nixon, president, would prefer to see the Legislature take on the sensitive topic versus the 2,700-plus local county, city, school and other boards in Washington.
“Having it be required in state law would be simpler,” he said. if elected leaders don’t act, he said it’s possible voters could demand it in the form of a ballot initiative, he added.