(SPOKANE, Wash.) — Spokane County struck a major blow for open government today when its board of commissioners voted to approve a resolution opening collective bargaining negotiations between the county and the unions representing its employees to public observation.
The resolution was approved at the board’s regular Dec. 11 public meeting.
“This is a historic moment for the half-a-million residents of Spokane County,” said Matthew Hayward, Outreach Director for the Freedom Foundation, which has been working with the commissioners since 2016 to advance such a resolution.
“Bringing greater transparency to the collective bargaining process benefits taxpayers, who deserve to see how their money is allocated, union members, who should be able to see their union in action, and journalists, who should be able to watchdog the process,” he said.
Spokane County is not the first public employer in Washington to adopt such a reform, but it is the largest since the Freedom Foundation began advocating for collective bargaining transparency at the local level in 2014.
Several smaller governmental bodies — including Kittitas and Ferry counties, as well as the Pullman School District — have opened their contract talks to the public in recent years.
The commissioners of Lincoln County adopted the state’s first collective bargaining transparency resolution in 2016. Teamsters Local 690, which represents Lincoln County employees, refused to participate in open negotiations. The county filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the union with the Public Employment Relations Commission for refusal to bargain, and the union responded by filing its own complaint.
The county is represented by Freedom Foundation attorneys in the ongoing litigation.
Nothing in Washington state law requires collective bargaining negotiations between public employers and government unions to be conducted in secret. However, such negotiations are exempted from the provisions of the state’s Open Public Meetings Act, meaning that the negotiations may be — but do not have to be, conducted behind-closed-doors.
Even though neighboring Oregon and Idaho, as well as many other states, generally allow for public oversight of collective bargaining in government, closed negotiations were the norm in Washington until recent years, when the Freedom Foundation began advocating for a more transparent process.
“Allowing for great public oversight of our contract negotiations with our union workforce will help taxpayers, the media, and our employees better understand this important process. As a leading advocate for government transparency in Washington, I am grateful for the support of the Freedom Foundation in helping us advance this important reform. We look forward to continuing to make Spokane County as open and accountable as possible,” said Spokane County Commissioner Josh Kerns.
In a news release, commissioner Al French stated, “This resolution guarantees that the public can witness where millions of their public dollars are being spent and how they are negotiated. It has always been my goal to be 100% accountable to the citizens of Spokane County on how their tax dollars are being spent. This resolution ensures that accountability for this Board and hopefully many Commissions to come.”
Retiring State Sen. Michael Baumgartner, who was just elected Spokane County Treasurer, described the commission’s reform as an important step forward for the state.
“A great deal of taxpayer dollars are allocated in collective bargaining negotiations,” he said.
“Government unions often try their hardest to politically influence the public officials sitting opposite them at the negotiating table and to keep the public out of the process. To make sure everything stays above board, the public has to have a role in observing these negotiations. The county commissions should be lauded for setting an example the entire state should follow.”