Bright Light award: Lincoln County commissioners

Pursuing common sense in government can be surprisingly controversial. This year’s contretemps in rural Lincoln County is a prime example. County commissioners there took a stand for open negotiations, and were immediately hit with union blowback.

If you polled taxpayers on whether they should be allowed to observe negotiations between government officials and employee unions, the answer would be an overwhelming Yes. Not everyone is on board, however. As I put it in September, “[Union leaders] oppose open negotiations in any form. 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. That’s what they want to keep behind closed doors.”

Despite threats, financial intimidation, and bargaining complaints, Lincoln County’s elected commissioners – Mark Stedman, Scott Hutsell, and Rob Coffman – made their stand and didn’t waver. Some of the powers-that-be might not have liked it, but the three commissioners decided that pulling back the veil of secrecy from negotiations was worth fighting for.

Coffman summed it up: “What does anyone have to hide from the public we all serve? The answer should be absolutely nothing.”

Those who prefer secret negotiations and the status quo clearly feel that it advantages them. Taxpayers don’t share those feelings. As the Spokesman-Review editorialized, “The people left outside the door are paying for the decisions made by those inside.” In their resolution, Lincoln County’s commissioners positioned open negotiations as the antidote: “The impression of secret deal-making will be eliminated by making collective bargaining negotiations open to the public”.

The three Lincoln County commissioners earned some positive press for their stand. The Columbia Basin Herald wrote about why it all matters:

“Commissioners took a stand in the public’s best interest and they should be applauded for it. We are glad they were recognized on a statewide level because their efforts will gain more widespread attention, emphasis and traction. Their decision and strong stance mattered. Commissioners took to heart their responsibility of being stewards of taxpayer funds. They refused to bend to pressure and other counties and public entities should take note.”

In addition to earning some admiring press, the Washington Coalition for Open Government gave the trio its Key Award. We’ll add on one more: For standing up for taxpayers and pushing for greater government transparency, the Lincoln County commissioners are Smarter Government Washington Bright Lights.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.