Congratulations are in order for the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners who recently announced that negotiations with labor unions representing county employees would be open to the public for their observation.
Unfortunately, not everyone is a supporter of open and transparent government. As someone who spent 34 years as a senior legal counsel for the Washington State House of Representatives, I had a ring side seat at many of the battles that have been waged between those who seek open and transparent government and those who prefer to block public scrutiny.
In 1971, the Legislature passed the Open Meetings Act (Engrossed Senate Bill 485). The act declared that local government actions and deliberations should be conducted in the open. In fact, the Legislature was so supportive of the idea that in section 14 of the act they declared that if the open meetings requirements conflicted with any other laws, the open meeting law should prevail.
The 1973, the Legislature responded to a request of local governments that they be allowed to have closed meetings when they were discussing among themselves the government’s plans and strategies for upcoming bargaining agreements (HB 268). The Legislature provided that such closed meetings would not be subject to the open meetings law. The new law allowed local governments to choose whether such meetings would be open or closed.
In 1990, the Legislature once again amended the Open Meetings Act with respect to negotiating union contracts (Substitute House Bill 2337). The change was made in response to a 1989 Court of Appeals decision which declared that all bargaining sessions must be held in open public meetings (Mason County v Public Employment Relations Commission 54 Wn. App. 36).
The Legislature recognized that there might be times when the local government may have good reasons to want to hold collective bargaining sessions in closed meetings; and so they overrode the 1989 case and exempted bargaining meetings from the requirements of the Open Meetings Act. The Legislature left the issue of open or closed bargaining sessions up to the local government’s discretion.
Lincoln County has chosen to have the meetings be open. It seems that the unions oppose the idea of open meetings. Perhaps they are allergic to sunlight? If the unions were only making policy arguments about whether open meetings or closed meetings are more productive, that would be a fair conversation to have. Good arguments can be made for both sides.
But the unions are going further; they argue that they will sue Lincoln County because public bargaining of contracts is not legal. They argue that because the Open Meetings Act allows bargaining to be done in closed meetings, they cannot be done in open meetings. The argument resembles the product that one finds coming from the south end of a north bound bull.
When the union’s open meetings argument is quickly dismissed for the fraud that it is, union leaders will then say that requiring open public meetings during bargaining sessions is an unfair labor practice. Really? Open and transparent government is an unfair labor practice?
Certainly, laws can be strange, so before simply dismissing the unfair labor practice claim, we should look at the state labor law found in Chapter 46.51 RCW. The specific section of law dealing with unfair labor practices can be found at RCW 41.56.140. There is nothing, in the labor law which says that sunshine is an evil or unfair thing.
Again, I salute the Lincoln County commissioners for having the courage to stand up for open and transparent government. It would be a very good day if every local government in the state would assert its right to hold bargaining sessions which are open to the public. It would be better for voters to demand it.
Allen W. Hayward was Senior Legal Counsel with the Washington State House of Representatives from 1979 – 2012.