SacBee calls for more transparency in compensation agreements with public employee unions

The Sacramento Bee, in an editorial in today’s paper about Vallejo’s bankrupcy, backs the idea of legislation to shine some light on compensation contracts between municipalities and public employee unions. The editorial cites an article by CFAC’s executive director.

Here’s the SacBee editorial:

Editorial: Let public in on government labor deals

Published 12:00 am PDT Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Peter Scheer, who heads the California First Amendment Coalition, has a novel idea: End the secrecy surrounding local government labor contract negotiations.

You can understand the logic and the urgency behind his idea when you consider the situation in Vallejo. That city is filing for bankruptcy. Why? Local officials approved salary and benefits costs for current employees and retirees that are more than the city can afford.

Scheer’s point is that California law allows local government officials “to avoid public discussion of the true cost and fiscal impact of the pay deals that they have approved.” By the time the public sees anything, a union contract already is a done deal and no changes can be made.

In some states, all phases of the bargaining process, including negotiations, are open to the public (though government officials may discuss strategy for labor negotiations in closed session). Minnesota, Florida, Kansas and Tennessee are examples.

California is at the opposite extreme. The state’s Brown Act not only allows negotiations about salaries and benefits to be conducted behind closed doors, it allows local government officials to vote on a final agreement in closed session. Only after that vote and union acceptance of the contract does the local government have to let the public in on the deal. And only then does the text of the contract become a public record – when it’s too late to change anything.

The situation in Vallejo should cause legislators to revisit this nonsense. At a minimum, legislators should require local governments, before any vote, to publish a proposed contract and prepare a single, authoritative, easy-to-read document listing all parts of the offer, including cost. They also should require local governments to hold a public hearing to consider the financial ramifications of every labor agreement. The vote to approve or reject the contract should be held in public session.

The Vallejo debacle highlights a basic truth: the public that pays the bills should be able to see and question a contract before a vote, not after.