Let's talk about more than just union negotiations
The Washington Policy Center’s full page ad in the Spokesman last Sunday is still gnawing at my brain. For reference, today’s post is a sort of postscript to Wednesday’s (June 16’s) post concerning WPC’s ad. The ad demanded that collective bargaining talks be open to the public. The undersigned, all of them wealthy local business people, Republican politicians, or officials of Republican “think” tanks, all of them bearing anti-union credentials, offered the following line of reasoning:
Taxpayers deserve the right to follow the process and hold government officials accountable. Local media should be allowed to cover the process and inform the public so that citizens can be be aware if either side is acting in bad faith.
It’s a compelling argument, an argument they bolstered by citing a recent City of Spokane initiative that resulted in an addition to the City Charter that requires that collective bargaining negotiations be performed in public. Without quite explaining it, WPC now wants to apply the City Charter’s open meeting negotiating requirement to Spokane County’s talks with the unions.
The trouble with WPC’s argument, a trouble made conspicuous by the partisan nature of the signers, is its focus on shining a light on just one thing, on collective bargaining, i.e. union negotiations. If we are going to demand public local government negotiations with unions, we should apply the same requirement to local government negotiations with other outside entities. One of my readers wrote that he had once inquired of Stacey Cowles, one of the signers of the WPC ad (and owner of the Spokesman), “if his support for transparent negotiation of contracts that drive taxpayer spending would include real estate contract negotiations like, I don’t know, Riverpark Square parking garage, and the enormous taxpayer subsidy that contract delivered to Centennial Properties, the Cowles family’s real estate arm. Crickets in response.”
On a broader scale, where are the Republicans advocating for other forms of openness and sunlight, like public disclosure of donations to blatantly partisan entities like the Washington Policy Center itself, entities that hide their donors behind “non-profit” think tank status? Crickets there also. The same business-oriented Republicans that advocate to shine the spotlight on union negotiations claim that public disclosure of donations to non-profits would dampen donations. Well, yes, it might.
Sunlight, transparency, and openness in government serve a purpose only for those who 1) have easy access to the meeting materials and meetings and 2) have acquired enough understanding of government structure and process to make sense out of it. Otherwise, one only sees what is happening by viewing it through someone else’s filter—generally the filter of “the media.”
We should take the WPC’s and Commissioners French and Kerns’ call for public union negotiations and apply that call for transparency to a whole lot more in local government than union negotiations. Sunshine does no good if citizens can’t see what’s been illuminated, so the first task will be to explore how much effort it takes to learn what local government is doing on a week by week basis. One measure might be as simple as examining what level of effort it requires to access and understand the minutes local commissions, boards, and other government entities are legally required to keep and make available.
Keep to the high ground,
P.S. In general I find the civics of local government more challenging to understand and follow than that of federal government. National government is covered by reporters of major newspapers located all over the country. Their work is widely accessible. A cogent introduction to many of the details and history of national government and elected officials is available online through Wikipedia and Ballotpedia. As often as not neither of those two excellent resources is granular enough to offer an introduction to the local scene. State, county, and municipal governments vary widely in these United States. Each level has its own set of rules in the form of state law, county resolutions, municipal ordinances, state constitutions, and county and municipal charters—and there is no guarantee of concurrence across the levels. Local politicians make it their business to learn the rules. We citizens are at a distinct disadvantage if we don’t cultivate some of the same understanding.