BY PETER SCHEER—Local officials talk a good game about government transparency and accountability. And while city council members and county supervisors often go through the motions of conducting official business in an open and public way, on the biggest, most costly and consequential issues that come before them—issues that dwarf all others by orders of magnitude—those same elected officials revert to total secrecy.
I am referring to decisions on compensation and benefits for public employees–which, for most cities and counties in California, consume north of 80 percent of all government spending. Regardless of one’s party affiliation or views about local taxes or the value of government services, there is no credible argument that this is a good thing—that the public ought to be excluded from such crucial deliberations. Not in a democracy.
Collective bargaining agreements covering government workers are, almost everywhere, written in secrecy by negotiators who, on the government side, receive their marching orders from elected officials meeting behind closed doors. Proposals, counter-proposals, and the final handshake on an agreement all take place in an information blackout, with zero public scrutiny of, or input into, the inevitably difficult choices and trade-offs that must be made.
The public’s first look—at an agreement that could profoundly affect all local priorities and policies well into the future—comes only after approval by the union rank-and-file and on the eve (literally) of a city council or board of supervisors meeting at which the deal will be offered for a perfunctory vote of approval. When first made available to the public, in other words, the collective bargaining agreement is a fait accompli in a process that makes a mockery of democratic self-government.
The consequences of this process are painfully evident in the federal bankruptcy proceedings of cities like Vallejo, San Bernardino, and Stockton. But, fortunately, some local communities are rejecting the status quo. During the past year, Orange County, Costa Mesa, Pacific Palisades and Fullerton have enacted transparency ordinances—referred to as “Civic Openness in Negotiations,” or COIN, measures—that, in various ways, seek to open a window on the decision-making process for employee pay and benefits.
For one thing, the reforms provide an opportunity for public vetting of the assumptions (about tax receipts, returns on pension investments, life expectancy of retired workers, and the like) underlying the government’s pay and benefits proposals. If government officials are counting on wildly optirmistic projections, they should be called out by the press, by local watchdogs, and by securities analysts (for banks that are potential buyers of the government’s bonds).
Transparency reforms also will slow down the last stage of decision-making: when an agreement with public employee unions is referred to the city council or county supervisors for ratification. The refoms give the public a reasonable interval to review and analyze the agreement and to pose hard questions to elected officials–before the final vote is taken. In the case of Orange County, the proposed agreement must be debated at two board meetings and the agreement text must be published on the internet at least seven days before the first of those meetings.
Not surprisingly, public employee unions oppose these transparency ordinances. But the unions would be making a mistake to try to block them. Public support for government unions has been sinking for years; more recently they have also suffered a decline in political clout. Public employee unions can’t recover their influence over events by the usual tactic of pouring more money into local election campaigns. They have to win back the trust of voters, something that can only happen in a transparent process in which unions make their best case, based on complete and accurate information, to the people directly.
Holding local government public meetings on all local issues, except the ones that truly matter, is a fraudulent version of democracy. It’s time California cities, local districts, school boards and counties got serious about open government and embraced transparency in decisions on workers’ compensation and benefits. Otherwise, voters will replace them with representatives who understand the concept of public accountability.
Peter Scheer, a lawyer and journalist, is executive director of FAC. The views expressed here are his alone; they do not necessarily reflect the position of FAC’s Board of Directors.