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Saturday, June 2, 2007

Our View: Open negotiations

State workers' bargaining deserves the light of day

If you're wondering why the unions like SEIU and AFSCME that represent Oregon state employees went to court to keep collective bargaining documents secret, take a look at some of the statements filed by union representatives.

"If I, in the heat of negotiations, stated I didn't give a damn about those complaining clients and taxpayers, and it was written down by a member of the management team, then Don McIntire or a media outlet would print it on the front page of any communications organ of their choosing," said State Representative Diane Rosenbaum (D-Portland).

"If I knew that my comments would be available for public review, I would not be comfortable speaking until I had carefully thought through my comments," said State Senator Kurt Schrader (D-Canby).

Those quotations come from declarations submitted by seven unions that want the court to prohibit the state Office of Financial Management from releasing records of their bargaining sessions. The Taxpayer Assocation of Oregon, McIntire's think tank based in Tigard, requested those records under the state Public Records Act, and OFM was ready to comply until the unions applied for an injunction to stop it.

To be more precise, OFM and the TAO had agreed to wait until the Legislature had approved and funded the collective bargaining agreements, just in case negotiations might have to be reopened. Once the Legislature had acted, though, there was no justification for withholding public documents.

What TAO wanted to see - and what the unions counter is "of no legitimate concern to the public" - are the proposals and counterproposals that pass back and forth across the bargaining table when representatives of the state and the unions make deals that determine how much tax money will be paid out in wages and benefits.

The matter is scheduled for a hearing this month. Here's hoping the court comes down on the side of open government and public accountability.

In the private sector, it may be defensible to keep collective bargaining information secret. But OFM is bargaining with public dollars over public services, and the unions are out of line trying to keep their negotiating stances secret from those who ultimately write the checks.

For the record, TAO did not ask for union members' notes, just those from the state's negotiators. It also asked for the actual proposals that were put on the table by both sides.

Union representatives think that's unreasonable. Without secrecy, they contend, trust will break down, positions will solidify and stalemates will occur. That and union negotiators won't be able to show open scorn for the public or speak without thinking.

But in numerous other states, collective bargaining survives just fine in the open. Not only are the documents in question routinely made available, but in several states, the public may sit in on the bargaining sessions themselves.

The Montana Supreme Court once held that a school board's ability to supervise and control its district "is not necessarily thwarted by opening its collective bargaining strategy sessions." Those sessions have been open to the public since then, and that was 15 years ago.

Surely Oregon and its public employee unions can withstand the light of day, too.

The Spokesman-Review, June 1, By THE EDITORS

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