Chris Cargill: Spokane has to appeal the judge’s ruling on transparency in labor negotiations

Nearly 80% of Spokane voters overwhelmingly voted in favor of a bill that would make the city’s multi-million dollar contract negotiations with powerful unions open to public scrutiny in an attempt to foster trust, honesty and transparency in our government.

In response, unions threatened a “bar fight on the streets”. Now a Spokane judge has taken her side.

Last week Spokane Superior Court Judge Tony Hazel overturned the voter-approved bill.

It took Judge Hazel barely 10 seconds to ponder the oral arguments he had just heard before delivering a bizarre, rambling verdict that was more of a political speech than a fair weighing of the facts and the law.

He falsely claimed that state law requires that collective bargaining between the two parties be “exclusive”. In fact, the “exclusive” requirement in state law only relates to the right of trade unions to be certified as representatives of public servants.

The judge wrongly claimed that the law on openness did not contain a severance payment clause. It does.

Judge Hazel rightly said that “transparency is extremely important in local government,” but then turned back and said, “there is also the reality of human nature.”

The judge also seemed unaware of the judgments of the higher state courts on the matter.

After nearby Lincoln County passed its open negotiation resolution, the Public Employment Relations Commission dismissed the unions’ complaint that the resolution was an “unfair labor practice.” Soon after, Lincoln County successfully conducted its first wide-open collective bargaining negotiations.

Spokane City voters passed a similar bill because they saw that transparency in collective bargaining is common and routine. In almost half of the states, this is the norm. There are also some examples of tariff transparency that are already working in our country. It’s routine in Gig Harbor, Lincoln County, Kittitas County, Ferry County, Pullman School District, Kennewick School District; and locally even right here in Spokane County.

Diane Hodge, Finance Manager for the Pullman School District, explains why openness works so well: “We just think it’s fair that all members know what is going on on both sides.”

Spokane County has just completed its first successful open negotiations, with the Public Works Guild saying there is “no need to fear open meetings.”

However, other public sector unions have resisted. It’s easier to make outrageous and unsustainable demands for salary and benefits when no one is watching.

The unions know that the reform is popular with taxpayers. Several city bargaining unions attempted to negotiate a new contract before the 2020 statute amendment went into effect. However, when this tactic stopped working, the unions sued the city’s taxpayers and threatened elected officials who pledged to obey the law.

Judge Hazel claimed he gave the Spokane Transparency Act “a reasonable, objective reading”. However, based on his comments, it is clear that he did not.

Rather than settling the facts and the case, Judge Hazel got political, claiming the voter-approved constitutional amendment was just “an antagonistic tactic … that’s just honest”.

It is interesting that Judge Hazel thinks so – but his political opinion on the merits of tariff transparency as a policy is irrelevant. And to include your personal bias in your decision is troubling.

The elected officials of the City of Spokane must appeal this erroneous decision on behalf of their citizens. Transparency is not a bad thing; In fact, it is an integral part of honest, well-functioning government. Transparency is not “antagonistic”, it is about openness and public trust – no matter what an elected judge says.

Chris Cargill is the Eastern Washington director of the Washington Policy Center, an independent research organization with offices in Spokane, Seattle, Tri-Cities and Olympia. Online at washingtonpolicy.org.

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