Washington state has one of the strongest open government laws in the country.
The state’s Open Public Meetings Act says: “The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”
Despite this strong mandate for government transparency from the people, public employee union contracts are usually agreed to in secret, meaning an important and costly taxpayer expense is hidden until the final bill comes due.
As members of the Washington Coalition for Open Government and advocates for government transparency, we believe there is a better way.
In government, transparency always results in more accountability. Keeping meetings open and the business of government available for public review acts as a self-policing environment on the officials who act on our behalf.
Several local governments in the state have taken this to heart and adopted transparency for their public employee union contract talks.
The first was Lincoln County. According to the Lincoln County contract transparency resolution: “Both taxpayers and employees deserve to know how they are being represented during collective bargaining negotiations; and the impression of secret deal-making will be eliminated by making collective bargaining negotiations open to the public.”
The Pullman School District was next. As explained by Pullman board member Susan Weed when adopting a policy of contract openness: “It’s not our money. I just think it’s important that everyone knows what’s going on.”
Most recently the Tukwila School District adopted a policy of transparency, saying: “By opening the collective bargaining process to public view, the District will provide an incentive for both parties (management and labor) to take timely, reasonable, publicly defendable positions that allow the community to better understand the budget and other implications of collective bargaining contracts.”
We believe it is time for local governments in our area take this important step for open government.
State and local employment contracts should not be negotiated in secret. The public provides the money for these agreements.
Taxpayers should be allowed to follow the process and hold government officials accountable.
Lincoln County Commissioner Rob Coffman said it best recently when accepting the Washington Policy Center’s Champion of Freedom Award for the county’s decision to embrace transparency: “Us opening our union contract negotiations to the public, it’s just the right thing to do. Not only for the taxpayers, but the employees as well can see how their union wages are being spent in those contract negotiations. My question has always been: What does anybody have to hide? The answer really should be absolutely nothing.”
As noted by Commissioner Coffman, government employees should also be able to see firsthand what offers and counteroffers are being made by union executives in their name.
A policy of open public meetings would identify whether one side or the other is being unreasonable, and would quickly reveal who, if anyone, is acting in bad faith.
It is important to remember that state law says, “the people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments [government agencies] they have created.”
The people have a right to know how public spending decisions are made. Ending collective bargaining secrecy and opening public employee union contract negotiations to the public, as other states and cities have done, is a practical and ethical way to achieve that standard.
There is no reason Franklin County should not be a model in our state for open and transparent government and also embrace this important reform.
Matt Beaton is Franklin County Auditor and Washington Coalition for Open Government board member. Jason Mercier is the Government Reform director for Washington Policy Center, a non-profit, non-partisan research organization with offices in Tri-Cities, Spokane, Seattle and Olympia. Online at www.washingtonpolicy.org