(ELLENSBURG, Wash.) – Kittitas County on Tuesday became the fourth Washington jurisdiction to officially embrace transparency in its collective bargaining process by voting unanimously to adopt an ordinance requiring that future negotiating sessions between the county and the unions representing its employees be open to public scrutiny.
Lincoln County adopted a formal resolution to that effect last year, as did the Pullman and Tukwila school districts, and a number of other jurisdictions around the state are contemplating following suit.
“This is a small but significant step for open government in this state,” said Matthew Hayward, outreach coordinator for the Olympia-based Freedom Foundation, which wrote the model ordinance on which the Kittitas legislation is based and worked with the commissioners in both Lincoln and Kittitas counties on their respective actions.
“The taxpayers have every right to see how their money is being spent,” he said, “particularly when the elected officials negotiating on their behalf may very well have accepted campaign contributions from the same unions they’re supposed to bargain against. That’s a clear conflict of interest, and the public deserves to know who its representatives are actually representing.”
Hayward noted there is nothing in state or local law forcing a jurisdiction to hold its collective bargaining sessions behind closed doors. Nearly all have chosen to, he said, because those in charge fear incurring the wrath of the union and/or hope to conceal from voters the all-too-cozy relationship that exists between the negotiating parties.
In Lincoln County, Hayward explained, Teamsters Local 690, which represents public employees, did not initially fight that community’s transparency resolution. But later – at the urging of other government employee unions around the state – the Teamsters filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the Washington State Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC).
Freedom Foundation attorneys represented Lincoln County pro bono in the subsequent proceeding, after which the union complaint was dismissed. Hayward assured the Kittitas commissioners before Tuesday’s vote the organization was prepared to stand behind their decision, as well.
“Contracts with union employees are the biggest-ticket item we have in this county,” said Commissioner Paul Jewell. “The taxpayers have a right to know what’s in them.”
“I’ve been told this will somehow weaken unions, but I don’t see it,” added Commissioner Obie O’Brien. “This is what’s in the best interests of the people of Kittitas County, and I’m going to support it.”
Predictably, union officials were also on hand during Tuesday’s hearing to insist the public interest is better served by secrecy and cronyism than transparency.
“My belief is that transparency is bad public policy,” said Sean Jeffries, president of Operating Engineers Local 202. “It’s bad public policy because it shows a lack of trust and disrespect for county employees on both sides, labor and management.”
“Closed-door meetings where the people’s tax dollars are divvied up among special interests are the polar opposite of transparency,” Hayward said. “The Kittitas County commissioners should be commended for voting to serve their residents, not Big Labor and the greedy politicians its money corrupts.”
The Freedom Foundation is a member-supported, Northwest-based think and action tank promoting individual liberty, free enterprise and limited, accountable government.
David Dewhirst, Chief Litigation Counsel