Year after year, city councils and school boards go into closed session to guide their labor negotiators as they secretly negotiate new contracts with local union bargaining units.
In most communities, including in Palo Alto, the public learns nothing about the issues, proposals and financial implications throughout the negotiations until a final agreement has been reached with the union and after union members have already voted to approve the contract.
While state law requires the city council or school board to hold a single public hearing on the proposed new contract and take a public vote, the outcome is predetermined since the governing body has already voted in closed session to approve the contract, as has the union.
So the public is offered no opportunity to oversee or influence the single biggest financial decision that is made by its elected officials; it all takes place behind closed doors.
It doesn't have to be that way.
Nothing in the law prevents a city council or school board from keeping the public informed and seeking its input on the initial offers, counter offers and the financial impacts of iterations of contracts while negotiations are underway. The negotiating sessions themselves can even be open to the public if both the union and the government agency agree (which rarely happens).
Facing huge long-term pension costs and financial obligations that threaten future public services, government agencies at all levels are struggling to find a new, more transparent approach to labor negotiations so that the public can understand the financial implications and have a way to participate.
Except for a handful of California city councils and school boards that have adopted such practices, most, including Palo Alto, are still using traditional and outdated models of labor negotiations that are secret from the day they begin until the time a final labor contract is adopted in open session.
Vice Mayor Eric Filseth, along with Councilmen Greg Scharff, Greg Tanaka and Tom DuBois, have proposed through a "colleagues memo" that Palo Alto draw from the labor negotiation policies created by the cities of San Jose and Fullerton and open up the process a bit.
On Monday night it took little discussion to quickly obtain the City Council's unanimous support for the idea, and the council's Finance Committee will now pursue a range of ways to create more transparency in the labor negotiation process.
The reforms proposed include making public all written proposals and responses by both the city and union bargaining units within two days of being transmitted to the other party's negotiators, accompanied by a fiscal analysis that includes their impact on pension and retiree health care benefit liability. The council could have the option of providing direction to city negotiators in public session instead of what is now done exclusively in closed session and without public input.
As proposed, the new practices would be city policy, not adopted as an ordinance, to provide flexibility for the council to not disclose or delay disclosing some details of the negotiation if it was deemed desirable.
Filseth emphasized the proposal wasn't intended to change the actual bargaining process, in which negotiators for both sides meet and negotiate behind closed doors, but instead increase transparency by creating check-points so the public is able to follow the progress of negotiations and provide input.
As currently proposed, the policy falls short of what the most transparent cities in California have adopted. In San Jose, for example, periodic open-session updates on negotiations are given by the City Manager, and the bargaining unit representatives may also comment. The colleagues memo speculates that this may be burdensome in Palo Alto given the number of bargaining units whose contracts are negotiated at the same time, although since this is happening anyway in closed session we see no reason for the public not to be informed. In Costa Mesa, an independent auditor determines and explains publicly the fiscal impacts of each provision of a negotiated contract, a policy Filseth didn't feel was probably necessary in Palo Alto.
Accomplishing more transparency can't be done unilaterally by the city; it must first go through a "meet and confer" process with each union bargaining unit. Several council members expressed the hope that the unions would embrace more transparency, since it would result in more public awareness of the goals and needs of both sides. We agree.
We are strongly supportive of this important proposal and urge the school board to initiate a parallel effort to create similar transparency in its labor negotiations. School district labor agreements, which historically have been renegotiated every year, have been kept out of board packets even when the board is voting its final approval at a public meeting, an inexcusable practice.
We applaud Filseth and his colleagues for bringing this important issue forward, and urge the City Council to act quickly to put in place these new transparency measures, hopefully so they could be used in the current round of labor negotiations.