Commissioners again shoot down attempt to open union negotiations to the public

Grays Harbor County Commissioner Wes Cormier’s most recent attempt at a resolution opening the county’s union negotiations to the public failed to garner a second from commissioners Randy Ross or Vickie Raines Monday afternoon.

Without a second, the resolution was declared dead by Ross.

The issue drew a large crowd providing input to the commissioners, the majority of them union members and leaders arguing against the resolution.

Nathaniel Lawver, political director for Laborers Local 252 in Tacoma, was among the speakers asking for the commission to once again vote down the resolution.

“There are numerous problems in this resolution. It’s bad policy” and has the potential for lawsuits from the unions, he said.

He read excerpts from a letter drafted by Dmitri Iglitzin, attorney for the Washington and Northern Idaho District Council of Laborers. It read, in part, “Just like the previous proposals, this proposal is bad policy, unenforceable, and contrary to state law.” Previous attempts to pass the resolution were made in 2015 and 2017.

“The resolution would obligate the county’s representatives at the bargaining table to disclose what occurs in negotiations, but state law affirmatively prohibits such disclosure, because state law provides that ‘no municipal officer may disclose confidential information gained by reason of the officer’s position,’” wrote Iglitzin.

Frank Chestnut, a longtime union member, negotiator and current mayor of Cosmopolis, told the commissioners that he has worked closely with them on a number of issues, but said, “Unfortunately, good people can come up with a dumb idea.”

He said it’s poor policy to open union negotiations to the public. He and other opponents called it “fishbowl bargaining,” saying honest negotiations made between the union and the county could be swayed if they were open to the public and fair game for media sources.

Glen Ramiskey of Aberdeen, who spent decades in the Longshore union leadership, said open negotiations would be decided not at the bargaining table, “They’ll be done on an editorial page.”

“Opening the process eliminates something that is the basis of negotiating, and that is trust,” said Trina Young of Elma, who was a member of AFSCME Local 275, which represents courthouse employees.

The Freedom Foundation, a non-profit “think tank” that supports transparency in union/government negotiations, supported Cormier’s resolution and argued against the notion that opening union negotiations to the public would not stand up to legal challenges and to those who called the resolution a union-busting tool. He said his organization performed a statewide poll and said the results were overwhelmingly in favor of the resolution, to the tune of 90 percent.

After the meeting, Cormier said he brought the resolution back to a vote because in one recent negotiation he said he felt there were some aspects “that needed some sunlight;” he was legally unable to explain further. He also said the resolution had nothing to do with taking the power away from the union nor did it have anything to do with the Freedom Foundation.

“For me, it’s all about transparency,” he said, adding that 75 percent of the county’s budget goes to employee salaries and benefits, and he thinks “all the details need to be put out there” so county residents can see where there money is going. He said Oregon and Idaho have opened their negotiations to the public, showing it is feasible.

Raines said there are simply times when negotiations need to be made between the county and unions out of the public’s eye. She added that she believes the people who elected the commissioners expect them to do the negotiating on their behalf. She said at the end of the day, the important thing to consider in negotiations is keeping needed services working while making sure the county is getting as much out of every dollar it can. She described negotiations as “dickering,” and her job is to keep the best interest of the county in mind.

“It may seem trite, but our purpose is to keep the ‘dickering’ from becoming ‘bickering,’” quipped Ross.