Open public bargaining not as scary as some want you to believe

Washington has strong public records and open meeting laws that reflect the voters’ notion that we all have the right to know how our government operates. Every one of us has the right to see how our money is spent, how government decisions are made, and what public employees are doing on our behalf.

Those laws are incredibly important tools to hold government accountable.

Yet employee compensation contracts, one of the biggest spending categories in the state budget, are negotiated in secret instead of in public. Why?

Exceptions to the rule
There are exceptions to state government’s openness. Limited types of decisions are made behind closed doors and limited types of records are held back from disclosure. Operational details about, say, the governor’s security detail or the state emergency operations center are shielded from public inspection. Ongoing litigation can be discussed without the public present. Certain competitive information about private companies is exempt.

Employee contract negotiations don’t fit in with these types of exceptions. When government bargains with public employees over taxpayer money, the public deserves a seat at that table. But when state employees won bargaining rights in 2004, the bill specifically exempted negotiations from the Open Public Meetings Act.

Who wants you in the dark?
Those who benefit from keeping the public out of those meetings are quick to suggest that opening the door would open Pandora’s Box. It would be too complicated, they say. One side or the other might be embarrassed. People would try to score political points rather than focus on negotiating.

There are shades of truth in some of those points – but none of them trump the fact that when public officials and public employees bargain over public money, Jane Q.Public should have the right to observe it.

Many states and localities already have open negotiations. The sky has not fallen. The process works just fine in those places.

The public should have a seat at the table not only because it’s providing the taxes being spent and because government transparency is good. In negotiations between public unions and public officials, it’s not always clear that the two sides are really all that adversarial. Many politicians actively court government employee unions, and those unions spend big money and organize to elect the politicians they prefer.

Given that, shouldn’t the public get to see if their political leaders are actually bargaining hard on their behalf? That is precisely why some would prefer to keep that door closed shut.
-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.