Little Lincoln County seen as big threat to union secrecy

Who’s afraid of open contract negotiations? Clearly government employee unions are. They see open negotiations as a big threat, so they’re responding with threats.

Spokesman-Review columnist Sue Lani Madsen, proving that columnists can do pretty good original reporting too, captured the not-so-subtle intimidation leveled at Lincoln County Commissioners last week. The commissioners want to allow the public to view (not comment or participate in any way, just view) upcoming negotiations between the commissioners and county employee unions.

That makes union leaders very nervous. They 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.

Small county with tight budget
With just 10,300 people and a small retail tax base, the argument in Lincoln County isn’t about how to slice up a big pie. You wouldn’t think this is the kind of place that would attract much attention for its open negotiations proposal. National union organizations are keeping an eye on it all the same. It’s not about the money involved – this is an idea they don’t want to see spread.

Union officials reacted to the open negotiations with a mix of flattery, offers of help, and intimidation. A rep from one union told the commissioners, “I know your hearts, you are the model for what elected officials should be. You three have balanced the needs (of employees and citizens) really well.”

One Teamsters official told commissioners her group was prepared to help them lobby for removal of the statewide 1% property tax cap, which is difficult for small counties to deal with, except that “things like this (open negotiations) take away from that priority.”

Pressure is on to contain the threat
And then there’s the looming threat. Madsen condensed the comments of a different Teamsters official:

“Kuhn was concerned about the precedent and said there has been a ton of awareness raised on this issue among their partner organizations. ‘It’s very, very foreign,’ said Kuhn. Teamsters would prefer not to battle legally, but ‘we’ll have to take this on.’”

Yes, they’ll have to “take on” this “very, very foreign” concept – letting the public see it’s tax dollars be negotiated – lest it set a precedent.

Seemingly the unions and the commissioners should be allies right now. Although Lincoln County is strongly Republican, the commissioners put a tax increase on this fall’s ballot. That’s an action the unions support, but they’re getting hung up the open negotiations idea.

So far, commissioners are sticking to their position. One explained the need for open negotiations this way:

“‘Lincoln County is facing difficult financial times, and in November we’ll have a proposal on the ballot to increase sales tax 3/10 of 1 percent for public safety,’ said Commissioner Rob Coffman. ‘We need to be as transparent as possible.’”

The unions are hoping the threat of legal action will be enough to get the county to back off the open negotiations idea. In a small county like Lincoln with a limited budget, it might work. The county doesn’t have a lot of money to spend defending itself. Commissioner Coffman told Madsen, “The feedback from county residents has been positive, and my principle isn’t going to change, but if it comes down to we don’t have the money to fight it, that will be it.”

To the unions involved, this fight goes far beyond little Lincoln County – the smart money is on a full-fledged legal assault, not quiet acceptance of the idea that the public should get to peek behind the curtains of employee negotiations.
-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.