Karen Peterson

Karen Peterson: Agencies invite public to watch contract negotiations

Staff Photographer

If it happens once, it’s news. If it happens three times, it’s a trend.

Last week marked a second happening for what hopefully will become a trend — that local and state government agencies will decide to conduct public employee contract negotiations in front of the people paying the salaries — taxpayers.

The state’s Open Public Meetings Act doesn’t apply to contract negotiations with employee unions. Because of that, these meetings legally can take place behind closed doors. And they do.

But agencies aren’t required to shut out the public. They can choose to hold the talks in the open.

Last fall, Lincoln County commissioners voted to do just that. They unanimously passed a resolution opening the doors to their union contract negotiations and agreed to post public notice of when and where the meetings would be held.

Spokane Spokesman Review columnist Sue Lani Madsen told the story in September. Commissioners in this rural county west of Spokane, population 10,000, were about to ask voters to approve a sales tax increase for public safety, the largest expenditure in their budget, she wrote. They also were about to enter into contract negotiations with their sheriff’s department.

In Lincoln County, commissioners conduct the negotiations themselves.

“The commissioners are asking one of the most conservative counties in the state to vote to raise taxes, and they want to make it clear there’s nothing to hide,” Madsen wrote.

So they passed the resolution, agreeing that onlookers could only sit quietly and listen to the proceedings. No commenting. No pitching in. But at least they would know what was on the table.

The Teamsters local that represents Lincoln County deputies fussed because they hadn’t agreed to the openness. They also filed a complaint with the state Public Employment Relations Commission, calling the move an unfair labor practice.

In October, PERC denied the union’s complaint, saying the resolution had no impact on employees wages, hours or working conditions, so this new openness didn’t need to be bargained.

The union has said it will appeal, but the first open bargaining session in the Lincoln County seat of Davenport happened about two weeks ago.

That was Story No. 1.

Last Wednesday came Story No. 2, when the Pullman School Board approved a “transparent government” resolution that opened teacher contract negotiations to the public. Again, onlookers may only quietly observe, not participate.

Teachers spoke out against the action, saying they should have been consulted on the decision and telling the board that opening negotiations would make it harder to recruit teachers to Pullman.

In the resolution, which had been discussed at previous board meetings, the board made important points, including that: “the potential impression of secret deal-making will be eliminated by making collective bargaining negotiations open to the public;” and that “both taxpayers and employees deserve to know how they are being represented during collective bargaining negotiations.”

Good point. Sheriff deputies and teachers also should be able to witness negotiations held on their behalf.

“It’s not our money,” Pullman School Board member Susan Weed said before voting to approve the measure. “I just think it’s important that everyone knows what’s going on.”

The movement could become a trend as soon as this week, with Story No. 3, when the transparent negotiation virus spreads to Western Washington.

Grays Harbor County commissioners are expected to pass a resolution Monday opening union contract negotiations to the public. Again, the public could only observe, not comment or participate.

A vote was delayed last week because one of the three county commissioners was absent, but the other two were vocal supporters.

So could this trend catch on in Pierce County?

On Friday, I put the question to the new Pierce County executive, Bruce Dammeier.

“I’ve been following it,” he said. The subject also came up at the statehouse — where Dammeier most recently held office — regarding state worker contracts.

“I like the concept of it,” he said. “I need to engage the union leadership on it. And I need to engage the council.”

Dammeier also wants to look at how other states are handling the matter. And he wants to think about how this may be more complex with an agency the size of Pierce County, adding, “If we do it, what are the problems and are they real problems?”

His bottom line: “I’m committed to absolutely looking at it as a powerful reform that could be helpful.”

TNT wins First Amendment award

The Associated Press awarded the 2016 Ted M. Natt First Amendment Award to News Tribune reporter Sean Robinson for his investigations into the misconduct and complaints about abuses of power by Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist and high ranking members of his office.

The award is named for the former publisher of the Longview Daily News, whose paper won a Pulitzer Prize for its work covering the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. Natt, who died in 1999, was a staunch defender of the the First Amendment. Papers in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Utah and Montana are eligible to win the award.

Robinson’s body of work also was awarded third place in the investigative category of the 2016 C.B. Blethen Awards for Distinguished Newspaper Reporting.