Thanks to a bold move last September by county commissioners in rural Lincoln County, the idea of conducting contract negotiations in the open with public employees is gaining traction.
Earlier this year, the Pullman School District followed suit and now it could be Kennewick’s turn.
At the request of Kennewick City Councilman John Trumbo, opening up contract talks to the public is on Tuesday’s workshop agenda.
“I believe in more daylight,” Trumbo said.
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A retired Tri-City Herald journalist, Trumbo knows the importance of transparency in government.
When public money is being used to fund an agreement with public employees, the public should be able to see how that agreement is reached.
We think that’s obvious.
But many union officials disagree.
When Lincoln County commissioners decided to open contract discussions to the public, labor unions opposed it vehemently.
Lincoln County may be small, with 10,321 people, but union officials knew the ripples caused by this new, transparent approach to contract talks would be far-reaching.
To thwart the change, the unions filed a complaint with the Public Employee Relations Commission (PERC), claiming Lincoln County’s resolution amounted to an unfair labor practice.
To the delight of those who believe in open government, that complaint was dismissed.
In rejecting the union argument, PERC has provided a safe path for other city, county and school officials wanting to lift the curtain on labor talks.
Trumbo said he thinks opening up contract negotiations to the public would give people a better idea of what is going on.
In addition, it also might encourage both sides to start out with more reasonable positions, he said. Such a move may, in turn, result in a more reasonable outcome.
Trumbo said he thinks more light should be shed on how salaries are decided. His position is not unique.
In Idaho, lawmakers threw open the shutters and unanimously passed a law two years ago that stops cities and employee unions from negotiating contracts in secret. Oregon also has a bargaining system similar to what Lincoln County Commissioners have implemented.
And at our own state level, Senate Republicans are pushing to reform the closed-door bargaining sessions between the governor and state employees union – which is especially unsettling considering the union contributes to the governor’s election campaign.
Although the PERC decision makes it easier to proceed, it’s a sure bet the unions will fight it if the Kennewick City Council considers letting the public observe bargaining sessions.
In January, an attempt was made by Grays Harbor County to open contract talks, but the proposal failed after the opposition outnumbered supporters at a meeting.
We understand that salaries are a touchy topic, and people feel protective about discussing them.
But think back to 2015 when the Pasco School District was in turmoil over its contract negotiations with its teachers union. School was delayed for two weeks because the teachers went on strike.
There were so many rumors floating around that nobody knew for sure what was on the table.
If those discussions had been out in the open from the get-go, we think a resolution could have been found sooner.
Under the current political climate, Trumbo is bringing this issue up at the right time. People are beginning to see the need for more sunshine in government – at both local and state levels.
His colleagues on the city council should see that too, and follow the lead of those shining the light on public employee bargaining sessions.