Marin supervisors reject call for greater labor talk transparency

Negotiating who gets paid how much for what at the Marin Civic Center will remain behind closed doors as county supervisors rebuffed civil grand jury proposals to let the light shine in.

The county board Tuesday dismissed a call by the grand jury for a more open government.

“What are you, what are the unions afraid of?” asked former San Rafael councilman Jack Nixon, foreman of last year’s grand jury. “Why can’t you at least let the public know what is being proposed during negotiations?”

But supervisors approved without change an administration analysis rejecting or deferring key grand jury proposals to pull the covers off employee pay talks.

County Administrator Matthew Hymel’s review of a transparent labor negotiation process called Civic Openness In Negotiations, or COIN, similar in some respects to statements issued by other public agencies in Marin, disagreed with aspects of it while saying more study was required. The county sees value in some provisions but “other provisions may work against our ultimate goal to negotiate the best deal for taxpayers,” he said.

The grand jury liked the program so much it recommended it twice, issuing reports urging the county and local cities to adopt it, then following up with a directive that key special districts do the same.

The one proposal Hymel identified as helpful — and recommended for adoption “after good faith bargaining” with labor unions — is publication on the consent calendar of tentative labor pacts a week before they are up for review. The plan lags more progressive programs, such as in Fairfax, where officials agreed to publish pay pact proposals a month before they come up for review.

Freshman Supervisor Damon Connolly dominated board commentary on the plan, saying releasing negotiating proposals during labor talks could backfire amid grandstanding disruption.

“I fundamentally disagree … with negotiating in public,” he declared.

Connolly, calling COIN a “legally suspect gesture,” noted that public posturing during the BART strike triggered confusion, hardened positions and delayed resolution of issues.

Other board members lined up behind Connolly, with Kate Sears saying bargaining requires candid conversations. “Our Board of Supervisors is committed to transparency,” Sears said, but “bargaining in public is very different, whether it be for a nuclear Iran deal or a sports star contract.”

Supervisor Judy Arnold lauded Hymel’s analysis, including publication of tentative agreements a week early on the consent calendar. “Yet again our board has responded,” Arnold said, saluting county efforts on pension reform.

Supervisor Katie Rice had unusual praise for relentless board critics, saying, “I appreciate the pressure Citizens for Sustainable Pension Plans has brought on us … to improve.”

A half-dozen members of the pension group criticized the county retort to the grand jury, replaying a debate on the open negotiation program last spring. This time around, representatives of county fire unions, who earlier had provided fierce criticism of allowing the public to know more about labor talks, did not appear.

Jody Morales of Lucas Valley, founder of the pension group, said the county was embarking on business as usual and “thumbing its nose” at the grand jury as well as taxpayers. “It is time to open closed doors,” she said.

Criss Romero, a senior representative of the Marin Association of Public Employees, said critics suffered from “flawed logic” and lauded the “service mentality” of the county’s workforce.

The grand jury advocated an open government process in which taxpayers get independent interim reports on how pay and benefit pacts are progressing and letting the public chime in long before decisions are final.

The jury noted that the negotiation process itself would not be public, but more information about it disclosed. As it stands in Marin County today, public officials exclude local residents “from input until it is too late for a reasoned public dialogue,” jurors noted.

“Although Marin County residents pay taxes to support decisions by the Marin County Board of Supervisors and the city and town councils, there are numerous times when no transparency into the background of those decisions is made to the public,” the jury said.

The issue, the jury said, is “What should be disclosed to the residents of Marin, and when?”

http://www.marinij.com/general-news/20150825/marin-supervisors-reject-call-for-greater-labor-talk-transparency