Collective bargaining in Idaho gets more transparent

Here’s another extraordinary bill that passed this last legislative session that you haven’t heard about: House Bill 167 stops cities and labor unions from negotiating contracts in secret. The bill passed the House and Senate unanimously and was signed by Gov. Butch Otter.

When the open meeting law was passed in 1974, it included a provision allowing closed meetings, called executive sessions, for a number of purposes including real estate purchases, discussions about lawsuits and to review records exempt from public disclosure.

The author of the open meeting law, then-Rep. Gary Ingram, told me a few years ago that inclusion of closed-door labor negotiations was intended to secure passage of the bill; without it, the measure might have failed and all government boards would be allowed to continue to meet in secret whenever and wherever. Ingram always had misgivings about the secret collective bargaining provision; however, it has endured now more than 40 years.

But nothing good grows under the cover of darkness. Closed negotiations for labor contracts means the public has no way to know what was being negotiated away. Taxpayers would never be able to weigh in when salary schedules, health care benefits and vacation and sick leave were up for grabs. City and school district patrons were shut out of a process that decided the fate of large swaths of government expenditures.

On the flip side, labor unions complained that they were mistreated behind closed doors, that frank discussions turned into hostile and confrontational bullying sessions by people in official, powerful positions.

In 2011, lawmakers voted to require open meetings for school boards in their labor negotiations, but the Legislature still allowed cities to meet with police and fire unions privately. Furthermore, some school boards continued to close meetings anyway by delegating the labor negotiation process to an appointed committee not covered by the new open meeting requirements.

House Bill 167 solves several of those problems. First, it applies the open meeting requirements to all governing bodies — school boards, cities, counties, fire districts and anyone else that might be engaged in a labor negotiation. Second, it says the open meetings apply not only to the governing board but also to the governing board’s “designated representatives.”

Government officials can still meet privately to consider a labor union’s contract offer or formulate a counteroffer. But those documents are subject to public disclosure. Additionally, a governing board can duck behind closed doors whenever there’s a need to discuss a specific employee, “when the information has a direct bearing on the issues being negotiated and a reasonable person would conclude that the release of that information would violate that employee’s right to privacy.”

Labor union reps worked with me and state lawmakers to carve out this compromise. Both local government officials and union officials said, independently of one another, that they felt the closed sessions were more harmful than helpful. Opening labor negotiations to the public thus increasing transparency — for the positive — would improve the demeanor of the discussion.

In particular, my friend Rob Shoplock of the Professional Firefighters of Idaho did an outstanding job trying to create a compromise that we hope will work for both taxpayers and government employees. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Steve Harris, R-Meridian, championed the proposal as one that was plainly “a good government bill.”

It’s more than that. According to a 2013 Goldwater Institute report, most states require some level of secrecy for labor negotiations. Only Florida and Tennessee require open meetings for most collective bargaining sessions. But Florida blocks labor negotiation working papers from public disclosure, while Idaho’s law demands the opposite. Tennessee’s statute allows closed meetings for “strategy sessions,” while Idaho’s law is more specific.

In short, Idaho lawmakers may have passed the most transparent collective bargaining law in the country, and that’s outstanding. The new law takes effect July 1.

* Wayne Hoffman is the executive director of the Idaho Freedom Foundation. Email him at wayne@idahofreedom.net.

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