Last week, the Shelton City Commission formally decided to ignore the initiative process and silence the voices of concerned citizens seeking to change their local government.
Over the summer, local volunteer activists gathered and submitted sufficient signatures to qualify two initiatives for the city ballot. The first initiative would require the city to conduct contract negotiations with unions representing city employees in open meetings. Currently, the negotiations—which deal with funds provided by taxpayers—take place behind closed doors and out of public view. Even union members are barred from attending the meetings, which determine whether public employees can be fired for refusing to pay union dues.
The second initiative would free city employees from being forced to pay union dues as a condition of keeping their jobs and allow them to individually decide whether to associate with a union. Both ideas were proposed by the Freedom Foundation earlier this year.
State law gives Shelton two options for handling initiatives once a sufficient number of signatures have been submitted: Pass the initiatives as ordinances within 20 days of the certification of the signatures, or immediately refer the initiatives to the ballot for a vote of the people.
On the advice of City Attorney Kathleen Haggard, the Shelton City Commission decided to make up a third option—ignore the initiatives entirely.
Both Haggard and City Administrator Dave O’Leary argued that the initiatives conflicted with state law and should not go to a public vote.
While properly submitted initiatives may be kept from going to a public vote under certain circumstances, only a court can make such a decision. Shelton Commissioners are certainly entitled to their opinion but, absent a court ruling, they do not have the legal authority to keep the initiatives from going to a vote. But instead of seeking a court’s permission, the city of Shelton decided to simply ignore the law and take no action.
While state law permits local taxpayers to sue the city for failing to take appropriate action, it is wrong for cities to create an extralegal step in the initiative process by requiring activists to sue the city simply to get their lawfully submitted initiative(s) on the ballot. Citizens in Sequim recently filed suit against the city council for similarly ignoring two comparable initiatives.
Before announcing their decision, the Shelton city commissioners listened to public testimony both for and against the two initiatives.
The alleged illegality of the two initiatives was a common objection brought up by pro-union speakers. Under current state law, collective bargaining negotiations do not have to be conducted in accordance with the Open Public Meetings Act, but there is no prohibition in state law against local jurisdictions adopting transparency requirements that are more stringent that the state minimum.
Similarly, while state law allows union contracts to contain “union security” clauses forcing workers to pay dues as a condition of employment, there is no mandate that contracts maintain such clauses.
Few substantive arguments were raised against the initiatives, but there was no shortage of hysteria and hyperbole. Much of opponents’ outrage was directed against the Freedom Foundation, not the actual initiatives.
One obviously confused speaker went so far as to claim that, “There’s, like, seven states west of the Mississippi that haven’t signed up with them [the Freedom Foundation].” Of course, the Freedom Foundation has only ever operated in Washington state.
Another speaker robotically recited a prepared statement (his own?) in which he proclaimed,
“Out-of-town special interests and their extreme agenda are using our beloved city as a personal political football. Extreme right-wing corporate donors like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) fund the Freedom Foundation. ALEC’s objective is to rewrite state and now local laws to benefit corporations, not people.”
While ALEC is often accused of being a corporate entity, it is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. The Freedom Foundation has not received any financial support from ALEC—likely because ALEC does not make such donations.
One union representative was openly dismissive of employee rights, arguing that city “employees are choosing to work in a union environment where there is a union security agreement.” No employee should have to surrender their First Amendment freedoms of speech and association simply to get a job.
Another union member pointed out that workers at one time conducted a majority vote in favor of union representation. In the minority? Too bad: “That’s just the way it goes.”
He neglected to note, however, that such unions can be certified without an election. Even if a union is certified in an election, the union must never again win a certification election. In Shelton’s case, most bargaining units have never had the chance to vote on their union representative.
After public comment, each commissioner spoke briefly about their position. Though he faced some stiff competition, Commissioner Mike Olsen made by far the most colorful comments of the evening.
Olsen used his opportunity to speak on the merits or legality of the two initiatives to instead engage in a nearly four-minute rant against the Freedom Foundation.
After making a list of unsupportable and inaccurate claims about the Freedom Foundation’s alleged funding by corporate giants “bent on destroying the working-class family,” Olsen concluded by denouncing the Freedom Foundation and its alleged funders as being “anti-American.”
As Margaret Thatcher reportedly observed, “If they attack one personally, it means they have not a single political argument left.”
Supporters of the two measures offered welcome breaks from the hysteria. Union worker and initiative supporter Travis Couture fittingly concluded the public comments for the evening:
“Just hearing some of the testimony, you’d think that the sky has fallen and Doomsday is upon us because we ask for our public officials to conduct an open meeting when dealing with public-sector money. I think that’s absolutely insane. And as a member of a union myself, I personally would like the right to work, especially when some of my union dues go to fund political candidates that I may not necessarily agree with.”
Watch the full city council meeting footage below.