Today marks the year’s first meeting between state negotiators and the general government bargaining unit of the Washington Federation of State Employees (WFSE). The two sides are sitting down to hammer out a public employee compensation contract. The final product will result in one of the largest line items in the state budget next year.
And none of the rest of us are allowed in the room.
Not the press, which helps inform voters and hold public officials accountable. Not the taxpayers, who will foot the bill for the contract. Not even the rank-and-file WFSE members. Does that make any sense?
Initiative 1608 would return to the original intent of the landmark Open Public Meetings Act. I-1608, which is gathering signatures to qualify for the fall ballot, would affirm that this important public business should take place in the open, not in a locked room.
“When the voters I’m talking to learn they’re locked out from watching taxpayer money be spent, they’re pretty surprised. Washington has such a tradition of open government, people just assume this important government process must be open too,” said I-1608 organizer Craig Williamson. “I have to tell them, ‘Nope, even though all of us are the ones paying for this through our taxes, we basically have no say.’”
I-1608 would open the door so citizens and the press could observe negotiations. Open negotiations are common in many localities around the country, offering greater transparency. Some local governments in Washington, including Lincoln County, Kittitas County, and the Pullman School District, are already moving to open negotiations.
Passing I-1608 would give everyone in the process a seat at the table, which would help answer many lingering questions:
- Are government negotiators bargaining hard for the taxpayers they represent, or giving away the store?
- Are employees being represented well by their bargaining team?
- Are both sides making reasonable offers and negotiating in good faith?
- Is anyone in the room remembering taxpayers and the overall budget picture?
“Without I-1608, we won’t have the answers to any of these questions,” Williamson said. “The few insiders allowed in the room put up all kinds of excuses for why the public and press should be kept out. But we know open negotiations work because so many places already operate this way, with no problems.”
He added: “Most importantly, we’re talking about public negotiators bargaining with taxpayers’ money for government purposes. You can’t tell the people, in a democracy that is supposed to be transparent, that they don’t deserve a seat at the table too.”