This rebuttal is meant to correct inaccurate statements in a recent Letter to the Editor from Brian Pochert.
Lincoln County, like most other small, rural counties, continues to struggle due to the 1 percent property tax limitation and continued unfunded mandated by the state.
Nearing a financial crisis, where the cost of providing essential services was outpacing revenues, we decided to ask the voters for a three-tenths of 1 percent (3 cents on $10) Public Safety sales tax increase. Understanding the deep conservative values of our constituency, we needed to demonstrate the need for more money as well as the promise that the new revenue would go only to Public Safety.
For this tax to pass, the voters would need to be comfortable that we would do everything in our power to be as open and transparent as possible. Hence, our resolution to conduct collective bargaining negotiation sessions in a manner in which the public could observe how their dollars are spent.
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Stating that we passed a mandate against the wishes of our employees is inaccurate, as I doubt Mr. Pochert knows many of them. We actually have employees who would like to see how their union dues are being spent on their behalf. Opening these negotiations to the public works both ways equally. The public as well as the employees can see if either side is being unreasonable.
His statement regarding the ruling by the Public Employees Relation Commission (PERC) is completely false. He stated that PERC ruled that what we did was a “ground rule” and that it was determined by PERC to be an unfair labor practice. That is simply not true.
There have been several unfair labor practices filed in this case. The first one filed by the union has been dismissed and closed by PERC as it failed to state a cause of action. The second contained two allegations. 1) Changing past practice by opening contract negotiations to the public, and 2) refusing to bargain.
On the first allegation, PERC said that “it is not possible to conclude that a cause of action exists at this time for changing past practice and the complaint lacks description of a mandatory subject of bargaining which is a necessary element of a unilateral change allegation.” On the second allegation of refusal to bargain by the county, PERC stated that the allegation does warrant further case processing.
These allegations stem from a meeting that was set between the county and the union for the specific purpose of bargaining.
The county convened the meeting with the union present. Immediately thereafter, the union legal representative demanded that everyone who was not associated with the process leave the room. The county position was that we were at that meeting ready, willing and able to bargain but would do so pursuant to the prior adopted Transparency Resolution. Apparently, the union did not agree and subsequently left the room, refusing to negotiate. At that point, the county filed an unfair labor practice against the union for refusing to bargain.
At this time, the only question that remains in front of PERC is who refused to negotiate. A two-day hearing was held by PERC and a decision should be forthcoming by the end of February. But, the evidence in the case is quite clear and substantiated by a local newspaper editor who was in the room. The union walked out of a bargaining session and refused to negotiate.
Mr. Pochert also stated, “It is condescending to public employees to insinuate that their unions are misrepresenting them, wasting their money and keeping them in the dark, and therefor this mandate would benefit the employees.”
Nobody I know is insinuating such things. But why would it be a bad thing if public employees actually got to observe what was happening on their behalf in those meetings? Ironically, it was stated by a union official, on the record in the PERC hearing, that they really don’t want the entire bargaining group knowing how they bargain with management. That is no different than if management were to say that we really don’t want the public or the employees knowing what happens when we bargain with their money.
The unions virtually have no legal argument against negotiating in public. And, they already do so in many states.
Instead, they seem to make the issue about attacking groups who support open, transparent government like the Freedom Foundation and the Washington Policy Center. The untruths recently stated by union officials, on the record, about these groups are frankly quite disgusting. Some people will stop at nothing and say anything to discredit and smear a belief that does not parallel itself with their own.
As distrust of government grows, elected officials should do everything in their power to retain and improve that trust.
Kittitas County recently adopted a similar ordinance, and a growing number of other jurisdictions are in the process. I encourage all elected officials who bargain with public sector unions to follow our lead, especially the state of Washington. Because, as stated in the Open Public Meetings Act, “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.”
Former Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna stated the union’s opposition to open negotiations quite well when he wrote, “let’s be clear about what they’re opposing: They’re against the public being able to watch public officials bargain with public employee unions over spending the public’s money.”
My question remains: What does anyone have to hide from the public who we all serve? The answer should be absolutely nothing.
Rob Coffman is a Lincoln County commissioner